Tuesday, 2 February 2016

'False Ceilings' by Amit Sharma

Thankfully, we have learnt not to judge books by their covers. Otherwise, Amit Sharma’s novel False Ceilings would find few takers. The different shades of brown do dull justice to this saga and its long complicated series of related events spread across an even longer period of time – from pre-Independence India to many decades into the future. But then, that’s just the picture! The question is, has Amit managed to do justice to the grand premise he based his book on, in its creation and execution? I say grand because the blurb emphatically promises mystery, changing histories and new geographies. It also hints at some destructive secret ‘accidentally’ passed down many generations in the family that he has written about.

False Ceilings’ begins well! ‘Wasn’t the If-Else statement also an artistic code to life?’ asks Aaryan, a central character, drawing the reader in instantly. In the next line we are informed when this ‘magnanimously directionless’ man will die, after scribbling the If-Else verse on a coarse white sheet. Weren’t we just getting introduced? And what sheet? The chapter proceeds and so do we, to year 2060, where we meet Lipi and the Almirah, both as if living with a ‘fine spray of sadness’. The past is a constant presence and many enigmatic references to it keep us trying to prematurely connect dots which are still hazy. We want to know more already! In just 10 pages all elements of ‘False Ceilings’ come through. We sense suspense and see mysterious objects. We notice how the context is spread across ages and we are introduced to two main of the many characters in the book, struggling to reconcile what’s gone, what is and what could be. The stage is set! 

As you read on an impatience seeps in. There could be two reasons. One, because Amit has commendably kept the mystery from revealing itself and you are itching to reach a point where you successfully guess what’s hidden in the yellow cloth. Or two, because of the expectancy generated by point one (and the blurb, and chapter 1, and the trailer) the narration starts seeming too full of irrelevant details digressing from the main plot-line of mystery and into the mundane domain of domesticity.

And then it hits you! The creation of mystery is but a ruse to make you read a story that contains so many of our stories within it – of families, our lives, our insecurities, our deeds-misdeeds, our false ceilings of hope and expectations, our despair, our reactions, our loves, our losses and finally our goodbyes. It is then that you stop chewing your nails in bated anticipation of the wooden Almirah showing you the secret package, and fully realize what makes ‘False Ceilings’ what it is.

The complex plot is delivered rather cleverly. The reader is made to jump (in not so straight lines) between Flashbacks and Flashforwards such that neither the meticulous arrangement of the sequence of the stories nor the neat tying up of various threads at the end is compromised. This deft arrangement grips the reader in an experience where she is continuously being challenged to draw the family tree to know son from father and daughter from grandmother. This guesswork continues right till the end of the book, where the character names are revealed so matter-of-factly that you cannot but commend Amit for the nonchalant style of revelation. Almost as if he worked hard to first confuse, then challenge and then tease the reader with a ‘pay attention or you miss it!’ style.

What adds to the narration is the hold of suspense, a grip which does slacken to get lost in the main events of the family drama, but never dies. The Almirah is like an important character in the book, a mute one but which ‘had a life and mind of its own’ and with ‘a cursed secret’ that is to be kept safe and used wisely. Everything about it is either mysterious or deadly, and Amit makes sure we remember that! There is a whiff of the ominous throughout the book too, in the sudden appearance of peacocks and white owls, inexplicable behavior and deaths, apparitions and coincidences. Lots and lots of coincidences. How ‘Delhi was always leaping into (Shakuntala’s) existence’. How ‘it’s strange that everything gets concentrated in one place’, Dalhousie. And how, eventually, different characters start reflecting similar thoughts, merging into each other even when generations apart, with not just personality traits but family events repeating themselves too!

At the core of ‘False Ceilings’, then, is the human drama of ‘life’ that Aaryan sees reflected in the If-Else statements – of ‘decisions, lost opportunities, frustrations, happiness and complications.’ You will meet characters with real personalities, etched in utmost detail. One ‘dreams with open eyes’. Another loses herself in a crowd like the man who was ‘blending with the furniture at an alarming rate’. There are grandchildren cunningly being ‘spoilt silly’ by their grandmother and daughters-in-law never becoming daughters. A young man questions ‘do people really grow up?’ while an old man window-shops for death. There is a constant sense of people “becoming” as time passes, as the daily ordeals shape them into newer moulds or newer roles, ultimately making them into people who cannot express contentment, cannot shed their ‘disconcerted detachment’ with their families and yet cannot stop aspiring for a better life of … love. Bleak, but true!

However, as we see each generation subconsciously becoming like the previous one in all its follies and middle-class glories, the story which seemed a loyal reflection of reality-as-we-know-it starts seeming somewhat repetitive. It is here that this family saga starts losing out on some of its novelty. If it wasn’t for the element of mystery binding the book, the incidents per se would run the risk of bordering on the stereotypical.

The book is strong on context, placing characters in varied geographies drawn to the tee, from Dalhousie of the 1920s to a future where soups are made by ‘mixing capsules’. Amit seems to have researched the past well and imagined the future plausibly in order to document the flux of time and the passing of ages, an idea central to a saga. References to real historical events are used to map time too. The role of history in the book is thought-provoking. Some characters change geographies because of history and an important character permanently becomes neurotic (a tad implausible?) while watching riots at 5 years of age. Even the creation of the ‘secret’ is thanks to an epical event. The feel of a saga is unmistakable, even though the merging of many decades of history seamlessly with the story is not perfect. In some places those historical references look like an attempt to add grandeur to the characters’ background and motivations but by now we have fully seen how their lives are actually unfolding within their homes; not so much touched by the ‘stench of terror’ outside as driven by their own human follies residing inside. Re-acquainting readers, over many paragraphs, about the Freedom Struggle, for instance, sags suspense too, though thankfully only in the first half of the book! 

The pace of narration in parts is hurried and with the narrator doing most of the talking, not the characters, Amit Sharma’s tone of humour (in all the wrong places) sneaks in. Perhaps it is this hurry to tell the story, or to fit an epical portion of it into a book, which makes grammatical mistakes appear. How? Tenses are awry in places, ‘in’ consistently used in place of ‘into’ and ‘upon’ in place of ‘on’, incorrect use of ‘from’ and ‘since’, and many odd usages like 'teach to the parrot', 'disperse the ashes', 'male member', ‘doing miniscule jobs’, ‘copious house’, ‘mother had become sparse’, ‘close vicinity’, ‘breathing speeded’, ‘make Biryani as good as you did’, Gretle (Hansel and Gretel?), and ‘but’ with ‘although’ in the second half of the book after correctly being used in the first. Unfortunate, because they overshadow some beautifully moving passages of the book! Like this lovely one:

A week before Manohar’s death in 1998, his brain started shifting … he was in some other dimension, or maybe he was in transition, half here and half there. Is this how it happens, his wife would wonder. First your memories trickle out and then they drag out your soul at the end, like the coloured handkerchiefs coming out of a magician’s cap, tied to each other, like coaches of a train.’

There are bits about ‘False Ceilings’ which may not sit well with your reader expectation. You may even wonder if this crafty arrangement of the plot is well suited for the theme of the book, or better suited for a crime thriller. But one has got to acknowledge the extent, both of the honest-to-life story and life’s philosophy behind it, which this debut contains. When you finish reading the book, the lasting impression is a strangely stimulating cocktail of excitement to do with a mystery finally unravelled and more somber thoughts about life and living. You will stir that drink and wonder about ‘what could be and what is?’ in the white-washed facades of your homes. You will question if what is indeed wrong with the world is us! It is here that you’ll sense how subtly Amit Sharma has made a point (a moral?) too, about how ‘sometimes people go through a lifetime of pain by holding a secret that could have changed everything. It is an intoxicating addiction, as act of dominance to know that you hold something in your grip that could have changed the life of a person you detest.’

A mature book within which you may find your own story. Be aware that within it you may find your own false ceiling too!

'False Ceilings' by Amit Sharma is published by LiFi Publishers, 2016.

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

Friday, 29 January 2016

Have you done your homework?

Have you done your homework?’ I asked my son, who was busy tucking a paper boat into his bag, for show-and-tell in school the next day. He nodded and pat came the question back from my kindergartner, ‘Have you done yours, mumma?

Homework? Me? I was a student many years ago, my dear. The only homework I do now is when I help you with your worksheets!’ 

But with his innocent question he had left me thinking. What would I, as a parent, consider my homework? Something as basic as planning the next day’s tiffin or the impending theme party? No. Something much more essential, to be prepared in time and with the child’s future in mind. And it took me no time to arrive at the answer - financial planning to help my son realize his dreams.

All parents plan for their children’s futures and careers form an integral part of those tomorrows. I may wish to see my son as a pilot, his father a doctor and he, in turn, might harbour his own unique aspirations. As parents all we can do is be ready – not just emotionally but financially too – for their various life goals.

While I Google searched to learn more, I chanced upon this video, a part of Axis Mutual Fund #DoYourHomework. 

Children were asked to draw a picture of what they would like to become while parents were asked to paint what they would like their children to become in the future. And, they couldn’t cross notes with each other! Surprisingly, great minds did not think alike in this case, and children expressed their aspirations to pursue careers contrasting to what their parents wished for or from them. 

It made me see how my child is perhaps much more aware than I was at his age, and with a mind of his own dreaming his own dreams. I came back to the question then – what were we doing today to assist him in his career choices tomorrow?

The same evening my husband and I got talking about it (because it is never too early, you know!) and discussed how investment in mutual funds made sense, and something which campaigns like Axis Mutual Fund #DoYourHomework, were trying to highlight. Rather creatively, actually! How?  

Firstly, by understanding parents’ perspectives about their children’s future and how they plan to fulfill their children’s aspirations. Then, children were interviewed to understand their views too. The comprehensive research covering various cities and children between the age group of 4 and 12 years was revelatory. For instance, it was found that children are getting much more independent in their career choices, and simultaneously increasing education-related expenses are the biggest parental worry. Questions beset our minds! Questions which rear their heads time and again, and this day thanks to Axis MF provoking us, asking us if we’re on the same page as our children, when it comes to their future. Who knows what heights tuition fee will reach by the time my son is ready? Am I prepared? What about foreign education? The list is endless… 

But now we know there is help at hand! 

Platforms like homework.axismf.com enlist the Why, the How and the What for parents’ reference. Parents can find out education costs for various careers across various countries, even in the future, and arrive at the ideal amount one should invest in order to meet the future requirements. The group has also curated books to inspire the children to explore career options by reading short stories on professions, colouring activities and even puzzles. At Crossword Bookstores and Kidzania, Mumbai, painting experiments as seen in the Axis MF video above were organized, with introduction to the education calculator.   

Oh, and in the age of Apps can homework be far behind? Through the Homework app, parents find out the costs of education across a multitude of courses in various countries at their finger-tips. The app not only gives info on the future value of the course which their children want to pursue, but also the estimated amount to invest to reach that goal.

Just like each child is unique in his aspirations, so are the planning paths for their parents. I guess the only important thing is being aware about their dreams as well as about those, like the #DoYourHomework campaign, who are working to make us aware and assist us in one of the most important decisions of our parenting lives. 

Friday, 22 January 2016

To the ‘big’ aunty wearing tights, here’s a bigger Bravo!

I was preparing for medical entrance exams in Class 12. My chemistry tutor ran batches of 25 which began at 6 am till way past dusk, in his house. He was very good! Till that morning when he looked at me, smirked, looked away at the others and said ‘Those girls who wear tight jeans never clear these exams. I can write it down for you.’ I was 16. Everyone laughed uproariously. I never went to him again. I did get a call from a medical college in Pune. 
He wasn’t that good, after all!


A few months back I read about Amy Pence-Brown, a nearly 40-year-old woman, who stripped down to a bikini in the middle of a busy market, blindfolded. She invited strangers to draw hearts on her body in an effort to promote self-love; to promote acceptance of our bodies for what they are. Supportive comments poured in! 


I quote from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a gift from a man and a most valuable one. 

According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking…suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated…but the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others. 

By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself...manifest in her gestures, voice, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence.

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. This has been at the cost of women’s self being split in two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…from earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life… Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’

Berger wrote this back in 1977. Such were the times, the expectations from women and thus of women. Appropriate it to today’s situation. Are you too thinking such are the times, still? At least partially?

Let’s go back to Amy who began this piece for us. When she exposed every popularly-defined 'ugly, fat and ungainly' part of her body what all did she do? She erased that split within! The ‘mother’ fought away her own image of herself, through years of conditioning, to free her three children from the burden of dominant beauty discourses. And the ‘fat feminist’ reclaimed her body!

And now come back to where you are sitting and reading this. What are you wearing right now? And why?

I’m inviting you to self-talk because it is something I once used to do standing before a wardrobe which always ‘played safe’ and knocked away any ‘experiment with clothes’ or ‘lust for the latest fashion’ that tried to get in. Because, will it suit me? In school there was little scope. In college the fantasies of wearing the most different dresses materialised in the changing room, and never walked out. Even after I hit 20, maybe especially then, since the world is suddenly visible to your adult eyes, a lot of clothes, accessories, make-up and hair-dos were secretly admired on others and dreamt about later. From two pony-tails in school I had graduated to one pony-tail in college, with the latest rubber band holding it, no more.  

I was very conscious of myself, and not just because of beauty magazines, advertisements, movies and social media feeding me their standards but also those people-to-people comments politely lecturing me on ‘what is okay for you’. So you know what a battle it must have been to wear my first ever halter-neck without worrying that my bust line is a shame! But when I walked out for the first time baring my back to the world, I slowly started arriving at a point of comfort with how I look in what I wear and where. It is then that realization seeped in – all these years of growing up, the ‘will it suit me?’ was more about ‘will it suit others’ idea of me?’ 

I was trying to please, to appeal to another’s sensibility. And it wasn’t even me who was doing that!  

A woman’s self-esteem is constantly crushed. Going back to Berger, girls often grow up in an ‘allotted and confined space’ and even as women face ‘tutelage’ from surprising quarters. The pressures to be dainty, pretty, shapely, combed, graceful, ironed wrap us in layers of self-judging, mummifying what we truly want to be. Colouring our image of ourselves in others’ tinted glasses. Because on our shoulders hang expectations, of others from us and those we women tend to have of ourselves as a result of constant conditioning. 

So the ‘big’ aunty in tights, walking gaily down the chic mall or the neighborhood market, and who still in a very evolved world generates snickers, may have run an obstacle course to get herself to buy her first pair, and climbed a mountain of belief to wear it! Against her family, her husband, her kids, her magazine, her friends’ sense of aesthetics, and who knows what else to reach the finish line of confidence. A true heroine, if you ask me. One who has succeeded in leaving beauty myths behind even if to don the latest fashion (for why should a tank top be the privilege of a few?) One who has accepted her body, as your ‘warts’ but her all! And one who burns the measuring tape you take to her thighs (like that despicable newspaper printing candid bum shots or a Right winger’s view on jeans) with an enviable self-assurance!

A lot is gained when we reclaim our bodies – its bulges, its scars, its pores, its patches - one step at a time. Because what we also reclaim is our Presence; social, emotional and even political presence in the world, in its truest sense. Just like Amy owned hers, in her black bikini. 

Nakedness was created in the mind of the beholder, in the Garden of Eden. And it continues to be today, in all its forms. Says Berger – 

‘She is not naked as she is.
She is naked as the spectator sees her.

Think about it.

[Entirely my opinion, the importance of which like any other is as much in its rejection as in its acceptance.] 

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