Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Ordinary. Extraordinary!

Every morning our alarms go off with military precision waking us up to another day which usually promises to be as full of event schedules, office rosters, to-do lists under fridge magnets and a stainless steel routine as the day before. Or the day after. Every morning, like Del Amitri said, ‘the needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before.’ An impermeable membrane of sameness envelops our daily lives. 

Ordinarily, from this predictability we draw comfort of the known and warmth of permanence. A pattern is manageable. The known is a blessing. The next step ready. The train of schedule running smoothly from Platform A; never derailing on to Plan B. It is what lends our life a solidity, like the big teak dining table standing on its four strong legs. Dependable. Or the three kinds of latches on our home doors. Secured. 

But someday, say once a month, you digress from planning the day’s menus and meetings over your morning cup of tea to thinking … thinking how growing up feels good. But how come settling down seems so unsettling, at times? How come what we aspired for, worked towards and built on our own terms suddenly seems like a record of monotony, turning and turning and turning? Where is the sound, the music, the beat, the spontaneous dance? 

Where is the … the … extraordinary!?

And the thought leaves in its wake a shot of yearning. The tea turns tasteless. The biscuit unappealing. The ritual of consuming them boring. Just like the day that looms ahead. Same-to-same-to-same. 

That yearning? For something different. For a ripple of excitement. For a breath of change. For a charge on every atom. For stimuli which enliven. For awe that lasts even if for a blink. Like a cross stitch that suddenly interferes with the beautifully sewn pattern of the peaceful running stitch, to only add to it the uniqueness of a positive disruption. A moment to remember. Or something said. Or done. Or felt. Or not done. Some … interruption!


Funny how when the ‘extra’ is married to ‘ordinary’ it makes it not extra, or more, ordinary but actually beyond ordinary. Which means the starting point is the ordinary. So someone would have you believe that within the folds of the ordinary hides the special extra. Now surely we can’t go hunting for the extraordinary in the ordinary, right? I mean it isn’t like picking up the brown rug and finding gold doubloons under them. Or using the broom under the bed to get the magic wand out. 

What does it take, then, to find the extraordinary beyond but from within the everyday? 

Gaston Bachelard, a little known French philosopher of the twentieth century, wrote ‘The Poetics of Space’, which is full of passages which celebrate housework. Yes, housework! See what he says: 

The daydreams that accompany household activities … keep vigilant watch over the house, they link its immediate past to its immediate future, they are what maintains it in the security of being.’ And this happens during the most mundane acts and most mechanical actions, like dusting the table, because our consciousness is woken up. We want to set the objects right! We want to shine them, lend them beauty, or what he calls ‘a human dignity’ for the role they play in preserving a comfortable continuum. In the regular act of polishing the china, then, ‘we can sense how a human being can devote himself to things and make them his own by perfecting their beauty. A little more beautiful and we have something quite different.’ Thus, even plain housework becomes a creative activity, not just for the thought-processes it gives birth to but also for the objects being re-imagined anew, with intimacy and with love. 


It takes being a truly and fully conscious person to see the extraordinary. Marry that to a thirst for observing and perceiving and with an openness to pick and experience the “different” stimuli in the humdrum, and the impermeable membrane of sameness becomes porous. You almost feel more … awake!

Usually, my milk man with his thin moustache and even thinner frame exudes impatience. After all, he’s a milk man in the morning, an electrician during the day and if we are to believe his reasons for absenteeism, a hassled husband the rest of the time. And so his feet are always moving even when he’s still. So I always keep the change ready. Recently, when my son walked to the door I noticed that all his hurry vanished. He shook his hands like an old friend and asked him about the plans for the day. That connection-over-little-in-common was brewing over time, right under my nose and next to my busy hands. I hadn’t noticed it before! And when I did there was something delightfully warming about the unhurried conversation happening at the slightly ajar door. 

Just like a mere sprinkle of vodka is all it takes to make the water melon more divine. 

Like opening a suitcase of old clothes and feeling the rush of warm memories from a decade back, the sensation akin to travelling. Feeling charged on reading a message from a stranger - ‘you looked into my soul when you wrote this’. Sitting idle on a sidewalk in a busy market just watching the world’s side-profiles go by. The moving, the still, the profundity of it all! Or taking the SLR for a walk in the park, to catch the squirrels playing peep-o, or the good-looking father with his child. Come on, the weather demanded it! Or simply going for a coffee date with your book, drinking it ever so slowly, because 30 minutes away from schedule, in your own company, on your own sofa, is precious time gained. 

Wonderful whorls swirl around our lives waiting to be found (indeed, like magic wands under beds!) And readiness to see them is all it takes to actually see them. When these conscious epiphanies of thoughts or surprising spectacles for the eyes unfold, they are like the gentle wind which suddenly turned excited, making the grass shiver and the sleeping fire flies rise up in the air to fill up the skies. Their torches aglow.   

Kafka said this to a friend – 

Life is as infinitely great and profound as the immensity of the stars above us. One can only look at it through the narrow keyhole of one’s personal existence. But through it one perceives more than one can see. So above all one must keep the keyhole clean.

An extraordinary thought!  

Friday, 27 May 2016

Saurbh Katyal’s ‘The Invisible Woman’, on the mobile

Readers need books. Books need to be read. No surprise then that what were unimaginable media of reading, once, are now a reality. Where once it took heart to give up paper for screens, we’re now embracing reading even on mobile phones!  Saurbh Katyal’s The Invisible Woman is the first book I read on the Juggernaut App. Let me tell you how it satisfied my twiddling thumb, for I cannot dissociate the book from its medium this first time.  

We met Vishal Bajaj, the detective-protagonist of this book, in Saurbh’s previous novel ‘Seduced by Murder’. He continues how we remember him last - real, believable, intelligent and also vulnerable. With Pranay, his partner in solving crimes, he is ‘forced to work on any case that came our way’. Money is tight! Along comes Sangita one rainy afternoon, with what seems like a simple spy-on-an-old-lady-in-Juhu-and-get-me-a-picture request, in exchange for a huge amount of money. Obviously, there is nothing simple about this woman’s request. There are wheels within wheels, sub-plots inside the main plot and a thick rope of mystery looping around the handful of characters at a steady speed to finally tighten like a noose around the murderer(s). All this happens in 48 hours at breath-taking speed! But not before Saurbh Katyal delivers a murder mystery with his characteristic imprint all over. 

What are the elements of this characteristic style, which not just make his book an entertaining read but also well-suited to be read on a phone? 

A sepia-coloured simplicity, which takes you back to old Bollywood mystery movies, coats his stories. Those times from long ago when more than gadgets (unless a magnifying glass can be called one!) it was the detective’s ability which sniffed out a crime trail. Murder investigations had tools like the investigator’s hawk-like vision, intelligent foresight and a talking gut. A detective wore an over-coat, but it didn’t spill out radars or thermal goggles. It just helped him spy in the rain, or keep his face disguised. Vishal Bajaj is one such creation, and rather unique in his ilk. More often than not, it is the talent he has seeing two and two add up to three, and not just when he is delightfully inebriated, which helps propel the mystery forward in the urban belly of ‘The Invisible Woman’. 

I may be wrong but I want to be sure,’ says Vishal, before following a trail. Alongside we follow. The reader is Vishal’s constant companion, privy to his thoughts, observations and vulnerabilities much before anyone else. Like a confidante for his most unflattering thoughts about women or more importantly, the strewn clues to the murderer. The book is teeming with blink-and-miss details. There are scorpion tattoos on fair skin, people gone missing or secretly colluding, Aadhaar Cards and Facebook, gun shots and cliff hangers, motorbikes in the rain, dustbins and garbage, alcohol and organs, eyes in peep holes, corpses in Lotus position and then those innocent confessions of servants like ‘But when he was lifting the trunk and placing it on the carrier . . . I heard a sound of something moving . . . something rolling across the trunk . . . so I know that it was not completely empty.

A lot is going on, and the reader is not just involved but occupies a position of privilege I’d say, one which even Pranay does not. If Vishal could share a drink with us, he would, as freely as he does opinions in his characteristic I-don’t-care-if-you-judge-me style. I will ‘always remember that men in ponytails and tight pants are either yoga teachers or fashion designers. Not cops.’ Well, it helped him solve crimes, so!

The sparsely-populated story moves back and forth at a gripping speed, with short, snappy chapters closing on open threads, and quick-changing scenes taking us to myriad locales in Mumbai – from plush bungalows to apartments, from dangerous suburbs to seedy hotels where ‘the room was only supposed to be used, not admired.’  The story thickens as the role of every character in the bigger puzzle comes into sight and Vishal has to separate wheat from chaff, knowing how so many characters ‘talk a lot and say too little’. A well-laid plot leaves the reader match steps with footprints, with Vishal. The story of ‘The Invisible Woman’ is not as linear as that of ‘Seduced by Murder’, but it isn’t too fashionably complex to make you feel the effort either. 

Unlike in his previous book, Saurbh’s latest closes with a series of action scenes, the dhishum-dhishum kind! So while in ‘Seduced by Murder’ we saw little muscle about Vishal, endearing the readers towards this very ordinary yet extraordinary man, in ‘The Invisible Woman’ we see him landing blows and ducking bullets with a superhero-ish zeal. A filmy feel is predominant towards the end of the book. If ‘curiosity could never kill this cat’, it seems neither could a bullet hit Vishal. But then ‘I always submit to drunk, angry men who have tied me to a chair, so I sang like a canary.’ Which is to say, he always knows what he’s doing, and why.

Frankly, if I were to choose between the story and its detective, I would pick Vishal! 

I remember observing with regret the last time around how Pranay as his detective partner simply faded away to finally vanish out of the readers’ range in ‘Seduced by Murder’. Now, ‘The Invisible Woman’ begins on a note of great camaraderie between the two partners of the agency, but yet again, though Pranay is around, he somewhat recedes into the background. For instance, even in the deadliest of scenes where Vishal could simply call him for help, he doesn’t think of keeping Pranay in the loop. Why? Some other problems I saw as I read are to do with descriptions of gory scenes not being, well, gory enough and Vishal's physical description totally missing in the book. Also, when all the threads are being tied up, I wish we weren’t eased into the revelations but awed into them. That bit fell flat on impact. 

The Invisible Woman’ does carry forward Saurbh’s classic mystery-writing style, and one which I as a reader enjoy with nostalgia in a world of overtly convoluted and complex crime thrillers. What is also apparent, and Saurbh always has an underlying “point” to his mysteries, is the aim to remove facades – which hang like expensive drapes or appear like cheap lipsticks – from our urban living. To really show what lives and transpires within. Just like his star detective, Saurbh’s stories come from our very Indian context, showing much more than just telling a tale. Certain social issues form the premise on which a woman’s revenge unfolds in this book. Once all threads are tied up we are left musing over the very human foibles that form each of us, the questionable motives that can drive us and the conscience we must keep alive, at the end of the day. 

Made for a quick, unpretentious, entertaining and marginally thought-provoking consumption, my expectations of a mystery-on-the-mobile were met rather well with ‘The Invisible Woman’.

'The Invisible Woman' by Saurbh Katyal is published on the Juggernaut App, 2016.

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

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The Life of the Over-Anxious Types

Some people get ‘too worried’ about too many things. The list of things which gets such over-anxious folks, well, over-anxious, seems endless to others. Even if there are just 957 items (and counting) on the ‘List of Worries’, those around such palpitating folks prefer saying ‘you have to worry about EVERYTHING?’ It isn’t everything we worry about, but truth be told we do worry about a lot!

We? Okay then. Time to own up, confess and also confide. I am the over-anxious kind, but because there is comfort in numbers, let me use ‘we’ instead.

We like the usualness of the everyday. We are low-maintenance that way. A routine sans ‘interruptions’ is good for our hearts’ health. Interruptions? They come in all sizes, and the XS ones are present even in the normal day-to-day. For instance, those to do with timing. Waking up 10 minutes after the alarm sends us into a tizzy. No, we are not sure we are late but we worry that we can be because 10 minutes of usual get-the-house-folk-ready time has been lost. We berate ourselves, beat the coffee harder, bathe like standing on live coals and generally go scurrying about the house like rats. Worrying rats! ‘We are all going to be late!’ While we do that, those around us go about, or certainly seem to go about, at a shamefully languid pace, staring at the rampaging monster frothing at the mouth. ‘Can’t you do your potty fast? You are late!’ Needless to mention, by the time the bye-byes happen, usually still at the O’clock, even the sweat droplets on the nose are fatigued from the work-out. They simply want to drip away. 

This worry to do with keeping time extends to bus depots, railway platforms and airport terminals too. On an average, we reach our places of departure an hour in advance; that is after spinning like a crazy top while preparing for the trips. All lists crossed out two times over. Our bags packed for WW III. Our pockets worried full of peanuts in case a dinosaur blocks our car en route. And anxiety tucked in the top pocket, with the tickets. By the time it’s departure time, we have moved ourselves so much we don’t even realize the train is moving. And then ‘Do you think it will be raining there? We haven’t kept an umbrella!’ That's a size M for the rest of the journey.   

Then there are the Size L interruptions. Like exams! As teenagers the gut takes the kick. As adults, Lomotil becomes your best buddy. Anxiety for scoring well makes your hands shake, your hand-writing drunk and your examiner impatient, and thus often plummeting your scores. (Not for me though. I was always above average!) Vicious circle. Invoke your favourite gods, chew your nails, wear your lucky shirt, do what you may. With eyes stuck on the clock and mind on the consequences, you lose all control on your nerves. And bladder, if it’s Physics, Class XII, Board. Similar to your wedding day, cold feet included!

But some of us have not felt The Anxiety till our kids fall ill. Sneezes to infections, flu to grazed knees, weird worst-case scenarios drawn from Google or Biology books make traumatic appearances in our over-anxious eyes. Perhaps, this is why I confide today …

My son got the tummy bug a week back and has been languishing at home, with no appetite for food or fun. His parents have been doing what is needed, but it is his mother who has been doing more than what is needed. Or in other words, what is generally considered 'not needed'. I have been poring over poop and pee, pressing his tummy to generate reactions, putting each morsel in his mouth with shaky hands (Will it stay? Why won’t it? WHEN WILL IT?), touching his forehead every 30 minutes and making lists of questions to ask the doctor on the next visit. Obviously, my over-anxious behavior is generating reactions. My son’s response to ‘How do you feel?’ has gone from ‘I feel fine’ to ‘Fine!!’ My husband with his well of patience has, as usual, asked me to not worry for ‘how will it help?’ about 899 times and is now metamorphosed into his quiet helpless presence around me, passing ORS, indulging the kid with Battle Ship, sending SMSes from office and generally  trying to be helpful.

But what helps an over-anxious person? Can something?  

If it is a man they call him a birch-rod ‘disciplinarian’ and if it’s a woman on the go she’s got to be a reactive ‘menopausal’! Our worrying and worried persons are seen as child-like, predictable and unreasonable and our often shed tears common and thus needing no one’s hankerchiefs. All our worries are either unfounded or balderdash. Our very presence itself is believed to add to the grim (to us!) situation rather than take away from it. Even the doctors must be whispering under their breaths ‘Here she comes again!’ readying their best placating methods for the child’s mother’s child-within.

We over-anxious kinds sound like awful people to be around. Don’t we?

But you know, it is equally awful to be this kind too. Pretty painfully awful. Taxing! That too to be punctual, or concerned! Oh, helplessness!! To not be able to control your disorderly heartbeat even if it’s about bringing the house to order in the mornings. To not be able to not sweat when the ticket screams a departure time. To keep the hands from shaking while entering the exam halls. To not be able to fully-freely enjoy your own weddings, parties, farewells and book launches because ‘what if…?’ To not panic when the kid pukes. To not cry when he does it again...Yes, EVERYTHING! GRR!   

What helps an over-anxious person not feed on worry? Can something? 

Hm. No one’s answered that satisfactorily yet. But of course, if you’ve read this and you worry for my BP, you’re welcome to gift me a weekend at the spa in the hills or fly me for a solo beach holiday. 

(Um, what time exactly does the flight leave and which Terminal, please? Just asking. I guess.)

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