Monday, 28 July 2014

On Gratitude

You know how rain falls. 

Stray drops at first, as if the cloud is still making up its mind. You stare at the cemented courtyard floor waiting to see if the black dots are increasing, wondering if it is indeed rain and not the first floor people hanging their washed linen. You look up at the clouds, and then down again. Seeing the smaller circles dry, already, but almost hoping there’s more where that came from. And then, it does come. Slowly at first, and soon enough much faster, taking over in sight and sound what was once just a dull broken floor with a tulsi plant in the corner thirsting for respite. Finally you breathe, ‘It’s raining!’ Instinctively, you inhale. Expectantly too, for you know the earth will smell good, for you. The leaves shine greener, for you. The breeze blow cooler, yes, for you. 

Why not! If belief can move mountains, just imagine what contentment can flow from believing in a larger loom of goodness making weaves of happiness around you, just for you. And then, just half a breath is all it takes to send a quiet paper plane of ‘thank you’, sometimes with the destination marked, but often simply skywards charting its own path. 

I don’t think I have said as many thank-you's ever in my life as I have in this month of July speeding by. 

My son started formal schooling and best wishes for a boy who loves back as unconditionally as the love he receives came pouring in. My seventh wedding anniversary followed close on the heels of his big school milestone, and over mails and messages we were blessed with many years of togetherness. In walked some extra smiles, as someone’s ‘many happy returns of the day’ made our Facebook friends post birthday wishes on both the husband’s and the wife’s walls. We corrected them, of course, but thanked them too for their wishes, because each came with a ‘happy’ in it. And then, when a short story written by me saw itself in print, with a lovely book cover and a launch date complete, the excited flow of congratulations from those long lost in the play grounds of school or nooks and corners of college life had to be met with a barrage of equally elated  thank-you’s in return. 

Just when I thought it must be over for now … 

… five friends - Ashima Saini, Sheetal Susan Jacob, Rekha Dhyani, Gayatri Aptekar and Vinodini Iyer - tagged me in a gratitude sharing chain game on Facebook. Those tagged were to post three things they were grateful about and tag three more people to further the kind ripples. Strange are the ways in which small gestures make you feel all warm inside, make you appreciate things as they stand. To have been on these people’s minds made me feel good. It also made me wonder, beyond all the music and noise that we call life, about what I truly am grateful for and to whom.

And when I say ‘Thank God’ it’s not Him alone I mean, or Her…

I also mean People.

Those who I call family and friends and those who like to be called family and my friends. Whether around all the time, or once in an important blue moon, they help me form a chain of support much like bars on a ladder which I climb – sometimes with feet planted firmly on the rungs, other times with my hands and arms taking the weight, with each muscle aching for a push from below. And getting it. A phone call, a text message or just a ‘Hi, long time!’

And even those people who recede from my life. Relationships once forged but only to die a natural death, as if the bond came with an expiry date, and reached it. Those friends of yore who took a few steps back, first, and then many more to go beyond what the naked eye can see (not memory, no) for not always can two different minds be ready to grow together? Those people conspicuous by absence on my most happy days, and on those which broke my back. A natural severing. Meant to be. And so, not a loss but as if making space for others, for how many can we carry as we move ahead in life? 

Strangers too, who make their presence felt where even once is enough. That woman in a maroon and black suit who asked an old man to de-board a bus because he was behaving badly with the girl that I was in college. That guard at the school gate who calls my son ‘sir’, waving a goodbye through his big moustaches. Making me feel my son is safe. That auto driver who dropped me home, sans haggling sans cheating sans over-charging on a day Delhi swept off in the rains. And that lady who I shared the auto and broken Punjabi with, for there was a river on the road and she did not mind taking me along, making her two kids sit in her tiny lap. Thank God! 

When I say ‘Thank God’ it’s not Him alone I mean, or Her…

I also mean Circumstances.

Some call them results of free will some pronounce them pre-destined. Some look for beautiful patterns in life and call them coincidences. I have had my share of each, even as I type. For how can I not say thank you for that moment which got me to write? And write again? And be read and read some more? The circumstances which seemed vile but were blessings in disguise, and those which remained so sweet I never need sugar in my coffee any more. Those situations which may mean nothing today, but may acquire meaning tomorrow. And decisions from days gone by withering away as irrelevant this day. Each, no matter how small, a fitting piece of this jigsaw puzzle we call life. Propelling it forward, or making it reach a break. All for  good reason. For, what other reason can we need to believe in? 

There is just so much to be thankful about today. Say, this auspicious day of Eid, when ‘On Gratitude’ took birth on my blog. And I sit flying that paper plane skywards and saying Thank You! 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Book Review – Lucifer’s Lungi by Nitin Sawant

I begin this review of Nitin Sawant’s novella ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ with my least favourite quote from the book: 

Different regions here (in Southern India) had a different word for it – veshti, mundu, panche and so on. But for us non-South Indians who can’t fathom the subtle differences, every flowing waist-cloth around a male loin was just a lungi.

Least favourite because it takes me to that sari shop in Ernakulum where, for lack of any knowledge about this piece of clothing, I carelessly called a mundu a lungi, much to the chagrin of three, yes three, floor boys who held the beautiful cream and golden piece high up like a palanquin and declared, with a pinch of pride, that this is a mundu. They pointed to a blue checkered pile, called it lungi and went away to cater to more discerning customers. Whether I regained my courage enough to buy a sari is a story not to be told. But the quirky title of the book took me back to that evening, where I was the very Lucifer raising Lungis to Godhead. Thankfully for Nitin, the book is doing no such thing. Or is it? 

The protagonist of this sparsely populated novella is an urban man whose ‘life has gotten so dull that on a silent night I could hear my soul rust’. Someone suggests weekend travel to relax that corporate neck of his and ‘a series of enchanted escapades’ begin. This book is about one such trip to an unpronounceable village so un-touristy that even the bus conductor cannot understand why ‘saar’ is going there, if not to buy flowers or start a temple! To tell you more about what unfolds between the city-slicker, a priest’s boy, lotuses in the middle of the pond, Luganar’s smell, a black thread and the holy mound in the jungle would be telling too much. So, no more about it!

Let's see what I liked and did not about this novella.

The Story – A Pocket-sized Rocket

'Lucifer’s Lungi’ is only 100 pages of a tiny sized book (okay, give or take five pages). And what a punch it packs! I usually don’t overdo talk of pace of a novel/novella, for each reader reads at his own comfortable speed – defined by eye-sight, time of day, number of children at home, degree of exploitative bosses, electricity office’s mercy, etc, and with such external factors bearing upon our minds, the story’s speed can often be misjudged as our own. But ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ amazed me with how fast it flew, not just because it is short but also because Nitin seems to have put in exactly the amount of incidences and words around those incidences as would make for a tight, speedy yet unhurried read. I began at gear four and ended my journey at five, and at no point was I over-speeding.

Apart from the pace, the story itself is interesting and a very creative way of making Atheism “meet” Theism at a crossroad, literally! The intrigue is on when the bus conductor pronounces ‘Don’t see people like you going down there, saar …’ for a village which is as much hidden from the readers’ view as revealed at this point in the beginning of the book. (Sue the North Indian in me, but I found the setting of the book exotic.) A stinking mystery is created around this lake-centered temple town producing flowers by the truck-loads and we are left wondering if a murder too is following close behind the heels of this ‘coughing misery’ roadways bus. 

Further, stray vernacular words like ‘Apattu’ (hazardous) to ‘Tondaravu’ (trouble) are murmured around the English-speaking narrator at points which keep our ears attentive, imaging anything from angry Gods to ghosts, or even a left-over lungi at the border of the town a page later, or even sooner. Most chapters end with vague statements like ‘This stinking thing can kill you, saar’ and keep the readers’ imagination working over-time, till and even beyond the grand finale night; for nights after all are 'the first mind-altering drug that ever got made’. 

If I could, I would delete the last but final sentence from this book. That’s all! 

The Idea behind the Story – inviting Tondaravu, no doubt!

Nitin Sawant’s narrator carries a ‘No Entry sign on my spiritual street’ and likes to believe he is a man of reason and rationality over religion. Little wonder then, that taking shelter in a temple and making friends with the priest, Sarvana his boy (who is ‘going to defend the shining honour of his entire upbringing’) and other villagers comes with a pre-set rider. It is through various such God-no God discussions (and encounters!) that Nitin pours into the novel scenes of Atheism versus Theism in shades ranging from horror to comic, and then their revisions too. Picture this, in a most holy setting:

I looked up at the deity. My God, was he angry or what? If only looks could kill, then he was already armed enough … the scowl on his face was indeed carved in stone' was said for Luganar and a little later in the book the good God hears this from him – 'I could imagine why well-educated guys like Sarvana still believed more in Palayar than science. This Big Guy could evoke that kind of confidence. I guess that’s what deity idols in most temples do – give us confidence. It I had a favour to ask, this is exactly the kind of idol that I would ask from.' This self-talk continues throughout to culminate in a better understanding of the phenomenon of belief, for it is ‘always easier to hang on to some convenient make-believe truth than to search for an absolute one.

While the arguments used by the narrator or the villagers to support their beliefs are not novel enough to be codified in the next journal on religion and spirituality,  their presentation through discussions or slapstick comedy are wonderfully entertaining, as is the mumbo-jumbo-jumble-up of legends and religions from across the world (you too must be wondering why Lucifer is wearing a lungi!). Eventually, the discussion reaches the dangerous border of the village and 30 minutes of horrific, action-packed, life-changing experiences which leave the narrator facing truth naked and naked before his eyes, as a ‘free man’ but one whose adrenaline had a field day night. But for more, read the book.

Language maketh a writer, and his narrator, alas!

I am no grammar-arian, but I do believe that when you choose a language to write in you need to be very careful about basic grammar. A lot of us get turned off at the first drunken bout of tenses or articles going missing. To err is human, but to err and err again? From the “po-logue” to the last sentence, the narrative carrier mistakes which slipped through the writer's and editor's eyes. Some examples, apart from the persistently strange (though not incorrect) use of ‘I’d’ – 

‘Night after night I would sit in my hotel balcony and stare vacuously in the emptiness of the night.’
‘The place practically grows up on you’
‘The boy … leading me around the temple to the backside.’
‘We do, sometimes. In holidays or when friends come over.’

Then, the narrator uses slang most of the time. While I did think the ‘kinda’ and ‘Gawd’ helped in places to show his mind’s nonchalance towards all things religious and inexplicable and add comic effect to the scenes of action, an over dose made me wonder if it was required at all. Do we who stay in cities talk (and think) in this manner alone? What could have been used as a technique to endear us to this young narrator makes him seem too casual, careless and might I say, shallow in some very significant places. Also, while his mind matures over the day he spends in the village enough to re-examine his ideas once set in stone, his language fails to compliment it.  I think I would have surely fallen in love with this ‘guy’ if only he had not called the bus conductor ‘lowly’ or generalised about ‘we Indians’ in a couple of places and kept his slang in check. As a character, Sarvana came across as my favourite. 

Nitin Sawant’s ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ marks a novel(la) attempt to broach a most controversial issue with such contraries (of ease and tension, humour and horror) that the book does not disappoint despite the shortcomings I speak about. I also think it can be made into a wonderful short story for children, if we adults would like them to read about this man’s journey to a very holy town and hear him say ‘Ironical, isn’t it? Clean stones for dirty souls …’ In the end what is affirmed is the human ability to trust and distrust and the very interesting phenomenon of how, while the Gods themselves may not be doing anything, belief in them is moving mountains, and hearts too. 

Author: Nitin Sawant
Publisher: Fablery

[This review was commissioned by the publisher. All views are my own.]

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Stat Connection is Opinion

I have been actively blogging for just over a year now. It was in the spring of 2013 when weather-happy fingers found a topic a day to pore over and then pour out and onto my online space I call ‘Between Write and Wrong’. I was so regular with writing whatever came to mind that some months down I wonder if it’s age, stage or a combination of both that has made my posts' flow go from a broken barrage to one which is manned and optimized to about two posts a week. Be that as it may, this is my 180th post. And after writing on whatever became visible under the shining Sun, today I sit for the first time to see why the top posts on my blog are the ones which are. Should be quite telling about what readers like to read, or what I am good at.

In descending order of popularity, here they are:

1. Sounding the Red Siren Against Sexual Abuse – this post was written to add my voice to Protsahan and Unicef’s fight against sexual abuse. I had shared a personal experience of meeting a sexually abused girl in a Jhuggi Jhopri Shishu Mandir I taught in while still in college.

2. Oh Chetan Bhagat! Read what you write – A rebuttal post to Bhagat’s published opinions about women, men, work, home, cooking, marriage, children, you get the drift! Yes, I was disagreeing with him.

3. Book Review – Sita’s Curse by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu – This book review of a feminist erotica was written a few weeks back but seems to be grabbing enough eye balls to be the third most popular post. Not just sex, talk of sex sells too, it seems.

4. An Open Letter to Educated Indians – One of my favourite posts from my pen. An opinion editorial as a civil servant’s wife, talking about how the rot is not just in the bureaucratic “system” but within us as citizens seeking services too. As honest as it could get!

5. The Tamasha of Birth and Death – The most spontaneous post on my blog. Ringing true like a personal rant and talking about the circus (of rituals and superstitions, terms and conditions) Indian society surrounds birth and death with.

What is common to all these posts? Opinion. About society hiding faces of sexual abuse or about citizenry bribing the tax collector while cursing corruption at India Gate. About a book which talks of sex or a man who talks about everything cooking in his head and serving it semi-baked. Opinions, all. And they seem to be read the most on my blog. Liked or not is a different matter, but then, that is the power of any opinion – it sells, nonetheless, takers or no takers.

We all have an opinion about anything that can be opined about, which in turn means everything. And why not! Free speech, free thoughts, freedom to express and free air time are some of the molecules that complete the structure of free will. It is good to have an opinion. It means, primarily, that we can think, we can reason, we can look in all eight directions, raise the grass in pincer clasp and release it to know which direction the wind is blowing from. And then, tell the world that it is blowing from the right or blowing totally wrong. Our opinion is like our gold star on a popular pavement, not as unique as our fingerprint, but ours.  

However, is it that easy to be pregnant with exclusive opinion? To be able to turn down the volume of screaming masses around or disconnect the social headphones altogether and think on your own? In an ivory tower, or at your desk, reading-researching-recording the real stories and our thoughts removed from the voices spoon feeding our heads?  Feeding – in the name of fashion or populism, conformism or revolution, nurture or membership, rebellion or discipline? It’s not easy, perhaps almost unnatural to even expect so from our own selves. They say nothing in this world is original and also that man is a social animal and …

… and a complete animal sometimes in how he dispenses with these opinions, some formed mostly borrowed – in words or through action. Over drinks in a drawing room with body language going down the flush or discussions on Twitter with Arnab in the background and 80-120 threatening to burst open the aorta, while the art of “gathering” an opinion has been honed to perfection the artistry (also called civility) of speaking it out is fast receding into loud chaos. Almost as if we cannot let another speak, because we do not want to hear a different point of view or even our own point of view from a different mouth, for how dare he echo me! It is becoming increasingly difficult to be challenged in our thoughts, because we think "we opine, and therefore we are". That opinions make us, form our complete identity. But then, doesn't how we spread them seem important too, as does the intent behind the cussing? Such a strange thought comes to mind and says the ‘how you say it’ is the shoe and the ‘what you say’ the man standing inside it. And the whole arrangement needs to be polished. Know what I mean? 

And look how I opine, about opinions. I am no less. So now, laying the blame on the top 5 posts on my blog and the yarn of thoughts they spun, off I go to switch on the television and see who slapped whom, and who all are slapping each other in celebration of it. I promise to sit through it and try to chew my own cud. Sometimes, I too cannot swallow it and call it 'opinion-I-ate-it' but itch to spit it out in the form of another opinion post and a tiara we all proudly wear - called 'opinionated'!

Maybe it will make it to the top slot too, one day?

[WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - The stat connection - Go to your Stats page and check your top three-five posts. Why do you think they’ve been successful? Find the connection between them, and write about it.]  

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