Friday, 19 December 2014

Wipe 'em clean!

A few days back I shared this on social media; something that I saw on a street in New Delhi:

So this man was peeing for 15 seconds behind a tree, after which he emerged looking relieved and wiping his hands with his yellow hanky. (I am assuming there was no tap there) He zipped up his jacket right to the top, rubbed both his cheeks as if warming up for something and then crossed the road to reach Bangladesh Embassy (minor detail, not important). He spoke to the gate guard and used his pen to make an entry in the register. He scribbled for a long time, and then the pen went back into the guard's upper pocket. Before walking inside, he shook hands with the guard, probably to thank him for the information he gave him. The gate guard was gleeful at being treated so well. Someone shook hands with him! 

The same hands which were being wiped clean of something just a few minutes back. I wonder if the pen realised? The cheeks, maybe? The hanky, of course, must be dead already. 

Moral of the story - Go sanskari. Say namaste instead! You just never know, no?

If I knew toilet talk would get me popular, I would make an early morning ablution of it. My update about the ‘travelling hand’ had caught many fancies. A party of men and women gathered in the comments-section to LOL, drop a few ewws, sympathise with the hanky, call men anything from lucky to yucky for using roadsides thus and generally join in the dirty talk. Two goodly men even cared to share the status update, on their pee-free (I suppose) walls. 

Now, while the image of a dirty ‘travelling hand’ is eww it is also very true that lack of time or awareness makes us find quick short-cuts to reach a semblance of cleanliness without a thought spared to those evil troublemakers called kitaanus. Their salivating mandibles wait eagerly for the slightest slip on our ends – putting rotis in a cloth which just wiped the casserole, spray-shining the appliances and then taking the rag to wipe the baby’s toys or even the extreme case of using a hankerchief to clean ‘relieved’ hands, then a sweaty forehead, snotty nose and later food off a toddler’s mouth too.  

Filthy and futile, both. 

That’s where Dettol Multi-Use Wipes should make their debut in your life. There is that dependability on a brand you grew up using (albeit in lesser nice-smelling formats) and that versatility of using it for various purposes, wherever and whenever. The best bit is, they not only protect skin from germs but help keep it germ-free too, without robbing it of its natural protection. As a mother to a Pisces child born with great love for liquids of all kinds, I have found these wipes handy and useful. By the way, they are available online too!

To end on a note that I began on ... I have kept an extra packet in my car’s glove box now. Not just for myself but also for the 15-seconds-men on the road. After all, a filthy handshake, no matter how golden, is also a totally futile one! 

[This is a sponsored product review.]

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Book Review – Chronicles of Urban Nomads

Much like any collection of short stories by different authors Readomania’s ‘Chronicles of Urban Nomads’ is a potpourri … no wait, let’s use an image in keeping with the season. ‘Chronicles…’ is like that packet of assorted Xmas tree decorations with 19 items inside. Some are exquisitely novel, like delicate musical instruments with bob-tails and golden threads. An equal number of pieces somewhat usual, like candy sticks, yet nice enough to hold your attention. A few, however and inescapably, don’t add much cheer to your season (say, the Styrofoam balls didn’t last the journey home!) You wished the shopkeeper was more discerning, or maybe he was giving every item a fair chance, in keeping with the spirit of generosity? That’s a lot of Xmas to begin with, but I hope you see what I mean to say about the 19 stories in Readomania’s latest anthology. 

The editor’s laudatory note calls the collection of stories a ‘psychedelic fabric that wraps around you’, marries classic with contemporary, and which carries an impact much like ‘a punch in the solar plexus’. The note also introduces us to the two segments into which the stories are divided – Imagine, and Musings. While the former rests on Personification the latter contains more conventionally written stories. Now, even if we ignore the verb-noun conflict in naming the sections and think ‘Imagination’ and ‘Musings’ would be more like it, we cannot the fact that both sections are well-connected by a thread we call human life. Either the personified objects are showing us their human sides or we have life-size characters ranging from parents to spouses, lovers to friends and even children. Thus, what connect all the stories are human emotions and experiences, lending credence to the ‘Chronicles’ in the title of the book. 

Favouritism first. 

Four stories stood apart from the rest, primarily because I couldn’t tease them into pieces I would have written any other way. Also because, and more importantly so, all four seemed to have elements out of the five of short story writing – character, plot, setting, conflict and theme – used well.

The sari in ‘Confessions of a Benarasi Sari’ by Ayan Pal was ‘woven to wow’. It is a most well-rounded personification. Ayan has seamlessly reflected on to its purple sheen feelings of misgiving and vanity, desire and pride. The sari becomes inseparable from the character of the woman (or any woman) who is about to tie the knot. Eventually, it becomes symbolic of the groom’s mother’s mind too, thus wrapping within its folds a universal experience of womanhood. The story is grounded in a Bengali setting rife with visual details without interfering with the emotional tug of the story. As an aside, I wonder if my wedding Benarasi will also confess that ‘every single glance of satisfaction caused my strands of desire to slowly weave themselves into a pair of wings and then suddenly, I was flying.’ 

The Blue Slippers’ by Kirthi Jayakumar is one of the most beautifully written stories in the collection. The streams of consciousness of the object personified (not telling you what) are expressed much like thoughts are formed – sans consideration for proper punctuations. This style of writing can be very impactful, especially when not overdone. The story has two parallel plot-lines which converge in the last bit to leave you contemplative, even as it beautifully renders the sad truth of life that ‘one had to be worse off for the other to be better off’. Much like what the personified object in this very short short-story thinks of itself, ‘The Blue Slippers’ is ‘not your average over-emotional case’. Kirthi does not force emotion out of us readers. The story is told standing apart from the characters and action, a technique very difficult to master. It is showing us a picture but is letting us look for reactions on our own. This is good writing.

Rahul Biswas’s ‘Hopes and Promises’ is written around the ‘thick, sticky net of indifference’ that envelops many marriages of many years. With an eye for minute details without making it wordy, Rahul creates a modern, urban milieu of two couples who are living out their marriages feeling ‘brotherly’ concern towards their spouses, but not much else. Apart from the mature theme, the author very elegantly keeps himself from taking moral sides in this conflict-ridden story, even as he gives due “voice” to each character. An inconclusive end leaves you asking for closed threads yet keeps you fully aware that some stories begun just cannot have an end. What remains is a door hinging around both hope and promise.

Finding Mia’ by Roopa Raveendran-Menon will echo in my head and give me goose-bumps for a long, long time to come. It begins on a spine-chilling note, proceeds as mysteriously, nonchalantly disturbs and makes you start when ‘I touch the bark. I hear a shriek. There is blood on my hands. I faint.’ The characters are named Mia, Mina, Myna/Mynah adding to the eerie effect. The whole story comprises short segments which move sans chronology but without obfuscating the plot. In the end, what is most spooky about Mina’s tale is its reality, after ‘the spell breaks’, of discharge from the mental hospital but with stolen pills in the hands. 

Coming in a close second …

There are some stories that I would like to mention for what they have, and the little extra that they could have had. 

A Little Nugget of Fear’ by Deepti Menon personifies the most interesting ‘thing’. It is a story of a woman who gets married and then bears a child, written with this specific context in mind. Perhaps it is the only personification which has a prevalent reality to portray, in a story with a similar aim. The ‘thing’ is well-enshrined in the woman ever since her birth, forever being provoked and finally leading to the penultimate scene - one of a vicarious murderer in a fatalistic twist to the tale and which I absolutely loved. However, what diluted the disturbing impact of the story was its stereotypical characterization. (Also, ‘little’ in the title was unnecessary.) 

EFIL’ by Bhaswar Mukherjee continued as my favourite story, except when it ended the way it did. It is a story of ‘an apology of a man’ WMD living in a tragi-comic domestic setting and trying his best to draw humour out of it. Until he realizes he wants to look for more meaning than domestic chores endow him with. Using his special gift which brings alive inanimate objects around him, WMD seeks to climb mountains to win over the one ‘lady’ he wants to mount, and who is not his wife. But all the effortless humour and modernist setting blew away with a sand storm the moment Bhaswar brought in a conspiracy theory angle. I wish the story a different end next time.

The Wait’ by Akshay Abbhi impresses with the maturity of its premise and the depiction of the very human conflicts that poverty and old age on the brink of death bring with them. It touched me, this very short story, but what saddened me was the absence of a visual appeal and that the personification did not speak its own language. ‘The Last Letter’ by Dipankar Mukherjee is another such story, lacking in the visual but poignant with emotions of a father making his last journey. It’s a grown-up story which makes you feel but disappoints with the way it reveals the only other character, apart from the father, a tad too prematurely.

I would also like to mention Jagadish Nadanalli’s ‘Bachelor and Baby’. An unmarried man treated suspiciously by the neighbours meets an endearingly created 'baby’. The story subtly makes a comment on the discriminatory attitudes of society and how appearances can be deceptive. The simplicity of narration makes the story impactful. Just that, yet again, it ends on a bed of cliché. 

To be fair, I did sit down to list to myself as to why a handful of stories did not find separate mention. I compiled this, almost in the order of appearance – unripe language, simplistic characters, implausible character motivations, strange generalisations, clichéd dialogues, drunk tenses, moral science lessons, plain personifications, old-fashioned/predictable endings, half-baked emotions, hurried narrations and that’s enough use of adjectives by me for this year. Basically, crimes which tend to rear their heads in any heterogeneous group of stories. But did I excuse the punctuation errors scattered everywhere? Not even the jolly season can make me!

Chronicles of Urban Nomads’, much like any anthology showcasing first time writers, will generate mixed emotions. But much like any such anthology, I wish ‘Chronicles…’ is read by many. Quality platforms for giving new writers a chance to be read are few, and their importance can never be stressed enough. I do wish that the book was not divided into two clear sections. When we know story 1-9 are personifications, reading can reduce to attempts at guessing who what is talking, making the reader miss out on the other elements. Such shoe-boxing can lead to greater undue comparisons too. Of course, if you are smart and realize this soon enough, like me, you will interleave stories from the two sections. 

You must read this book, my way or your way!

'Chronicles of Urban Nomads' is a Readomania publication, 2014

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

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Unexpectedly, sometimes. (A monologue)

Unexpectedly, sometimes, I lose them all. 
My inhibitions. 

I washed my hair late in the evening just so I could blow dry it fresh for the musical night-out. Spent extra minutes on the left-of-back part of the head, where a bunch of strands never, just never, rolls in properly. That elusive perfect wedge! Matched my silk scarf with the spaghetti top, contrasted both with the pants. Cleaned the family’s shoes for the evening. Even the son’s shirt, tucked tightly into place. Socks pulled up, teeth brushed. Proper. Everything. The husband did his own bit. The best of South Asian bands were playing at Purana Quila and neat-3 walked into the crowd just in time. 

Oh, the crowd. Madness sans method. The band from Bhutan was going hard rock and the mass of heads around us were banging to the rhythm. Caught husband’s feet in suede tapping, fingers clicking. Junior was taking time to let the lights, the sound, the noise sink in. And the banging heads. Not a care in the world not a hair in place. Not conscious if they looked like maniacs, or even their age. They were with it and with the drunken beams of light. Sunk deep into the moment. (Is this what they call trance?)

A few ticked minutes away it began. A self-conscious swaying of the body, of a 31-year-old mother who felt old standing amongst the sea of youth but wanted to, so badly, live college again. To let go. To, what they call, be. Bass to guitars to drums to trumpet and gentle swaying had matured into the real thing. I looked at him and winked. He smiled saying do your thing. Eyes closed, music in the ears, nothing in the head and feet in air. Thoughts of troubles and troubling thoughts, all gone. And the well-set wedge I spent those extra minutes on? Nowhere to be seen! 

Unexpectedly, sometimes, I lose them all.
My inhibitions.

Are the shorts too short? They’re not if you think they aren’t, said he getting dressed for the beach. Oh, let me just wrap a skirt over them in any case. When I sit they travel up. You care? Incredulous, it seemed to him. To me, in front of the hotel mirror, they seemed like very short shorts. As if my son’s I was wearing! Anyway, we went. Goggles and sun cream and baby food and a wrap-around on a white scooter zooming to Om Café, Anjuna Beach. 

Their chairs were so comfy. We dug some rolls and poured much Feni. My legs remained crossed. Uncrossing meant a slit right down the centre where the skirt played naughty. It flew too much too, that skirt, as I walked with slippers in one hand and baby’s hand in the other on the black rocks lining the sea. The beige shorts kept winking at me, happy to be peeping and showing. Stop leaving my hand, mamma, was his complaint every time I tried minding the skirt into place. What would he understand? My thighs will jiggle and jaggle, an eye sore in this beautiful place, oh why did I have to wear this damn pair. We walked on, the shadows grew longer, and bodies in bikinis appeared for an evening dip. 

Bodies. Foreigners, some Indians too. Most so shapely I wanted to stare and whistle. Others, quite like mine. Some in their twilight, too much bone or too much flab but so carefree. As if boasting to the setting sun with their wrinkled cleavages and bright bikinis that they had lived their lives and loved what it did to them. I had bunched up the slit of my knee-length wrap in my right hand. To keep it from flying. I let go now. It flapped like a bird and my thighs felt the wind, caught the orange light. Weee, screamed he. I tied the skirt around his neck, like a cape. Made him a superhero. Much like how I felt, heroic and free.

Unexpectedly, sometimes, I lose them all.
My inhibitions.

Examples upon examples... 

Of singing aloud at decibels that shiver on hearing my voice. Because he says he wants to listen to Jingle Bells as we drive back from school. He wants it so how can I hiccup? Never before did I hear my voice thus. Always excused myself from wedding singing, or sang in a whisper that even I couldn’t hear. Singing was not my thing. But it is. Now.

Of meeting estranged family after years of blood they call bad, but blood of the same family. The discomfort in the fidgety hands and feet but the comfort of breaking the ice and leaving bygones where they belong. Loud laughter and back-slapping between kin! There is no better way. Actually, there is no other way!

Of dancing on the road in strangers’ wedding baraats, wearing torn jeans and looking like misfits but feeling happy. Turning gaping stares of dressed up people into amused smiles. Hoping for an invite. Just desserts, please, uncle ji? We were poor, hungry hostellers. A second’s nudge from a buddy and hesitation had been thrown to the wind. I had crossed the road. Hands in the air, pumping shoulders, drums all around and soaked in fun. Living it. At someone else’s wedding, that too!

Examples upon examples, still...

Of tightly packed buses, with a pervert right behind and a public totally blind. (Life’s not all fun and games, now is it?) Exchanging stares with a female friend standing close by. Our eyes asking each other, what can we do? Silence. Just bending and looking out of the window hoping to see our stop. And then suddenly, as if the repressed spring decided to stand up, letting go of the wall of tolerance. Turning around and slapping him, the balding face who was someone’s grandfather. Khataak! Finally. And finally waking the public up, to kick him out of the bus.  

Countless more examples. 
Of a life with times when, unexpectedly, I lose them all. 
My inhibitions...

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Unexpected - Unexpectedly, you lose your job. (Or a loved one. Or something or someone important to you.) What do you do next?] 

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