Thursday 27 February 2014

Once, when travel meant something else

Sugandha chanced upon her love for writing just like that. She signed up on blogspot and started an online journal to fill up her free time. But one look at ‘Somethings Sugandha’ and you will thank her for the ‘Shades of Life’ she paints for us there, and for herself. Fiction, personal reflections, views and reviews can be found adorning her space. Food for our thoughts and food for her own mind too, she says.   

Now, Sugandha and I have something going on between us. You can call it an ‘affair to remember … to meet’ for more often than not, we catch ourselves saying to each other ‘We need to meet’. However, we are yet to travel that distance to see each other, even though we live in the same city. 

Travel that distance... 

Sugandha asked me to write a travel post for her blog and gave me sweeping powers to choose the kind I wanted to. So, I picked a memoir post, as a little girl growing up in a sleepy hamlet of lichi trees and tinned roofs, in a home called Dehradun. A post about what Travel meant when I did not know what all it could mean.


Steeped in nostalgia I write this. 

Of life and times when school was special even in its sameness of routine and evening play among kids for the newness, for who knew who the ‘denner’ would be that day? Of times when Sundays meant meals on a chatai in the garden, all 12 members of this joint-family together and festivals nothing short of spectacular. And of a life when travel did not mean packing large suit cases and leaving the house home-alone but something else entirely …

[To read more, please click here.]

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Book Review - Dinner Date by Ishaan Lalit

Ishaan Lalit begins the book with an informal apologia, to readers who await his next Science Fiction. For ‘Dinner Date’ is not that. This is a light-hearted laugh-fest which you enjoy while taking a break from bigger things or bigger books in life – exactly what the author had in mind for himself when he thought of writing this. 

This book is a twisted type of bildungsroman. (Don’t blame me for using that word, after all, there are bits about it which remind you of Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’. Alex the God-father and Sam coming into sudden riches is Pip’s story too, remember?) However, this is not to raise your expectations in any way. And in keeping with the quirkiness the author fills up the book with, lets use chapter names (in quotes) to tell you what I think.

The Devil’s Offer’ – Layering up Story-telling 

Ishaan is trying to be smart, to outwit us from behind Sam. What does he do? He lawyers layers up the narration. Look at this equation:

Ishaan Lalit > Sam with Malika > Sam from Sam’s story 

Who is the story teller, really? Who are we to believe? I liked this brave structure. The tale within a tale of a tale. At most points in the book, I did not know who was speaking. All I knew was, I was always thrice removed from Ishaan’s mind. Or was I? Ishaan and Sam at the table do have the same aim, after all - ‘He wanted to get in her head, by one means or the other,’ not getting even, but ‘getting one up’. While Sam is trying his best with Malika, Ishaan makes us readers his dinner date. Interesting! 

But then, the Sam from Sam’s story takes the attention away from the attempted technique. Such a detailed tale-telling and the author and the dinner table Sam are forgotten. The extensive detail of this narration-over-drinks reminds you of how flashbacks are done in movies – every prop in place. We just sit back and enjoy college Sam’s adventures in law school and then at his job. I wish the attempted technique ripened. Would have taken the book to an altogether different level. Maybe, more sudden appearances like ‘Oh! By the way my mother’s name is Nancy’ out of the blue, like an aside in a play. To remind the audience who the authority over story-telling is.

But then, it doesn’t matter! The book is not about evolutionary epiphanies which require literary genius, but a young, guffaw-worthy and enjoyable story. Enough literariness! Lets move on now. 

The Douche Baggery’ – Humour

I don’t like gay jokes, or trivializing sexuality. I squirmed when I encountered the first one, ‘Ram it into him’, despite knowing how commonplace these are in college life. I could not laugh at the various references to gayism in the initial part of the book. I do know it’s good to be open about taboos. In laughing them off as nothing serious, we are accepting them within the social folds, somewhat. But I did squirm. Why lie to you. And I had thought to myself - What if someone picks the joke off the book to use?

Thankfully, it changed for the better. 

A senior Golf Club member says to Sam – ‘We don’t care if you are gay; you are a member of the club and a damn good lawyer’. I said a silent thank God, we’re growing up! The absolutely hilarious scene between Carl, Sam and Alex where ‘what does it matter? A condom is a condom’ and Sam’s dad’s ‘I was just worried if my son was getting the right kind of protection’ and not whether he was straight or not made me think – Yes! Perhaps this is how we need to beat stigmas attached to serious issues. This scene between father-son-uncle is very inspiring, even as you laugh your guts out when it unfolds. 

Oh! And sex. I like how it makes its appearance in the book. I don’t mean nudity, but Aditi. No boy no man, but this girl, who is first introduced to us beating up two boys. And soon after, starting her bed-ventures with Sam. Always, just always, making the first move. Can I call it women empowerment of sorts? I will. Bold portrayal sans judgements and inviting none. So much so, I almost believed her ‘Of course, you pompous ass’ when Sam asks her if she’s dating him just for the sex. I am just fond of women characters making a choice. What else can I say? And even between friends, the word ‘sex’ comes without a ‘haw’ attached to it. Suddenly, just like that. As if they said paani-puri. And isn’t that wonderful? 

Moments of Brilliance’ – The Ha Ha bits & the Hey-that’s-me-from-college! 

Plenty of those in the book. Sam meets Alex and ‘all I could hear was the tune from Francis Ford Cappola’s Godfather’, followed by nicely done sessions. Sam dreaming, looking at Aditi – ‘she was beating up two first year students. I knew I had met my match’ and you can think of at least one such dreamer in your gang. Ram’s desperate plea – ‘I promise I will never look at a girl for the rest of my life. I will even turn homosexual and marry Rohit’s elder brother’, and you laugh.

And then, finding shades of your own college life and persona (‘maybe a late teenage’) within the pages. Soft targets and scapegoats, loyalty and friendship, outside class-room smartness, ‘icon’ making in college, earning respect by beating the system, being weird if your room is clean, job rivalries, daddy issues, sweet revenge and even those philosophical moments when you realize you are just a ‘tiny spec’. I had a lot of those in my college life. I must be a philosophical person! 

Trial and Error’ – The Buts, for me

Page 1 – Malika ‘smiled flirtatiously as she noticed Sam glance at her cleavage revealed through the plunging neckline’. Okay, that’s all good. But after the last chapter is done and a certain truth revealed, is this still all good? Or is it that the author used this for creating a first impression, and forgot about it? Makes no sense! Even her being in a hurry to leave this dinner date, or inquire about his job. Comes falling down when we reach the end, and their purpose of being together! 

And then, the overall canvas of the book – limited in audience and scope. Not for readers looking for lyricism or beautiful language. Not even a hint of drama. The court scenes are witty but not very intelligent coming from lawyers like Sam. No one character rises above the others. Even Sam is dependent on the people around him to give him character. There is not much you carry after you finish the book, except a stomach full of laughter. The plot, characters and climax are all young, and will appeal to a set readership looking for a fun book to read. Not the book’s fault, really, but certainly a limitation.

Dinner Date’ is not ‘an empty suit’. It remains an easy-breezy read, with a simple plot delivered funnily. While the blurb says it is ‘the story of one evening’ rest assured, it is much longer than that. Lawyers and law students will find a slice of their life within, and maybe get nostalgic. No hidden agendas to ‘out-lawyer me’ or hidden meanings between the lines. Open the book with an open mind and time to kill, and you will not be disappointed. 

PS- What about the 20-some?’ you find out for yourself. 

For now, ‘Court Dismissed’.

Title: Dinner Date
Author: Ishaan Lalit
Publisher: Author's Empire

Monday 24 February 2014

Sunday, on a different note!

The plan was to sleep and sleep and not wake-up at 7 am. On a Sunday, you are not meant to do that. God said so and took a break Himself, remember? But the loud trrrring of the doorbell shook me awake. I was playing Laptronica sitting beside Johnny Depp in my dreams, in complete Rhythm and Jazz when the tanpura of reality fell on my head.  

Open eyes and door.

There he stood, smiling as if nothing had happened, two packets of milk in his hands. Creep, I whispered, hoping God didn’t hear that. ‘Ram ram bhabhi ji’ and I growled something back, trying to open the eye that was stuck with the nameless little white things that form in them overnight. ‘The weather is changing fast now!’ and I looked at his face with that thin moustache I wanted to uproot. 100 minus 54 is … um … and he handed me the change. ‘Short by 1 rupee’, I told him. In went his hand into his pocket and jingled the coins inside. Clank clank clink and it sounded like Death Metal to my aching head. ‘Good day Sunday be with you, bhabhi ji’ he sheepishly said, smiling like an apsara no less in the rising sunlight, his words sung like Bhajan Kirtan straight into my head. Did I see him clapping his hands and nodding his head side-to-side too? The door closed. Phew! 

The coffee had to be strong. The bongo in my head had to go. And I had an appointment at the salon. Threading and then skinning alive for a dip in hot oil, and then slow roasting with Elevator Music playing in the bac … I meant waxing. 

I almost gave up, then saw a rickshaw guy sleeping, on duty. On duty! I shook his world and asked him to take me to ‘Beauty and the Best’, for 10 bucks. Cursing louder the sarkar with every pothole in the road, I wished I had a driver, or a bigger bum. The little bell on his handle was going mad with glee, and here I was doing Space Disco, or is this what is called Indie Rock a-bye-bebbe. Drats! ‘Can you go faster please, I’m getting late’ I bent forward to scream in his ear. He agreed. As if I had sung some Gospel Music in his ear. Vroom he went, till my liver reached my knees, my spleen my toes, and my heart right into my mouth. I reached. In one piece, but just a little misplaced inside. 

Minimalist … music I mean, as I entered to take a chair. ‘Threading first, please’ and in came my girl. Twang twang and felt like someone was playing a violin on my brows with a kite-flying thread. The murmur of fellow-sufferers did not help the pain. Such Comedy, the banters. ‘How much for waxing chest hair?’ and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I still cannot take it, a man next to me, querying thus with a green pack on his face. ‘Stay still and pull up, ma’am’ she whispered, matching the Drone playing around me somewhere. Or was it the pain in my head? ‘Oh, sorry! Is it almost over, Shikha?’ As if! The waxing session began. Two women, playing Qawwali over my legs my arms. Outdoing each other. The Drone turned Psychedelic. I am dying, I said to myself. This is what death feels like. I saw a sudden bright light and a woman in white robes saying something to me … ‘Ho gaya, ma’am’. I squeaked a thank you, with tear-filled eyes. Tears of joy. Hallelujah! 

I reach home and breathe, only to find I had forgotten to get the vegetables. Ravivar Bazaar lined the lane next door. And it was abuzz. Do I have to? Argued the angel. You have to! Boom boxed the devil. One jhola on one waxed arm a purse on the other, and an upper lip red like a certain God I entered the passageway to hell. What a Classical Crossover – from my peaceful home to this Samba. All shapes and sizes testing my Heavy Metal, over lauki and tori and gobhi and aalo. More push than that involved in delivering a child. Equal pull too. Hip Hop in the crowd and I reached my favourite guy. ‘What do you mean 20 ka ek pao?’ I screamed though my teeth, in the highest note of the octave. He acquiesced to this raging Medusa’s mood. Finally, to the Afro-Beat in my head, I sprinted home. Less red on the lip, but sore like a thumb in the head. 

Enough. This Sunday was all Noise.

I plonked on the bed and just stared at the fan, like a sax not ready to be played at any more. All my buttons had been pressed enough through the day. Telly on! What in the world is this? A furore in the Rajya Sabha. Hah! What fun. Suddenly, a big belly jangled naked with excitement. Acid Jazz poured in my eyes. Only one word escaped my mouth – Eww! I flushed the remote. Cut the TV cable into two. And closed my eyes. Humming my favourite Blues, finally. Falling asleep, slowly, almost there in the Bill Board chart of Top 10 Johnny Depp dreams. 

And then I heard it. Snore snore whistle snore whistle whistle snore. ‘What Deep F … Funk!’ You dog! And then I just gave up, on this very discordant Sunday. 

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: B+ - Write about what you did last weekend as though you’re a music critic reviewing a new album.]

Sunday 23 February 2014

Being VIP Madams

They say Seriousness is a very serious disease. I say, ditto! I also add that it is the only disease on the Planet of the Apes which you can guiltlessly laugh at. 

You know, like one-hand-on-the-stomach-the-other-on-the-mouth, moving forwards and backwards, going Ha Ha in gay abandon. No thorns of conscience pricking in your bosom. Between those guffaws, saying ‘Oh God! How they suffer, and make suffer. Have some pity, on them and our aching tummies too, Prabhu!’ Yes, quite like a symbiotic relationship. Quite like – ‘You give me your Seriousness, I give you my Laughter’. And laughter as we know is the best medicine, after a gooey yummy bar of chocolate that is.

But I should furnish specimens examples of those who I think suffer from this Condition of Seriousness. Let’s say we talk of … of certain governmental wives. Just a handful, I promise you, but there very much so.   

Now, if you were to attend a party of such VIP madam log who happen to be married to men who happened to have cleared their UPSC examination at some point of time in the past, you will know what I mean (although, I wish you no such ill luck!) 

In such a gathering, every breath you take, every move you make is according to the year your husband became an afsar. Which means, when I get up to introduce myself to the gathering of silk and skin, I say – ‘Hello respected honorable madams, pairee pna, I am Sakshi Nanda Mrs. 2006’. No more is needed. This is the most important identity that you have. In fact, the only one relevant, in all Seriousness. And just like our age (hiding cushy under the wired push-ups), the lower the number of the year the closer you are to VIP Godliness, of course. 

So, Mrs. 1980 may have lost all her teeth but not the bite, for her husband is still the Chiefest of Chiefs you can find. She will arrive late, solemn expression on her face as if this is a funeral of all things sensible and not a Diwali get together, occupy the highest chair around, swivel ever so nonchalantly towards all reverentially staring faces and stop at an angle which suits her best. One smile, barely there. Rings on all fingers, there! The rest of the Mrs will adjust their sofas, chairs, stools, cartons, door mats accordingly. For the best view of her feet which they may want to touch any time. After all, she is the chief guest welcomed with an orchid bouquet. And this is Serious.  

Mrs. 1990 will fuss over her, but will make sure she is fussed over amply in return too by the lower in order. While she will deliver the welcome note, a Mrs. 2000 will dust her chair with her dupatta for her. Mrs. 2004 will stand around ready to catch the command of the duster. A mutual co-existence as if giving a purpose to your life on Earth. Food chain - with primary consumers, secondary consumers and grass, or prey! And all this while, Mr. 2004 sits on his white-towelled office chair, oblivious to what clearing his UPSC so late in the century means for his wife's VIP social life. 

Once the royal behinds find their deserved-n-designated destinations, introductions will begin. Numbers of years will flow around. ‘Myself 2001’, ‘Hello everyone, I am Mrs. 420 1 triple 9’, and so on. Some whispered some said with full gusto. So many numbers you wish you had never failed your Maths exams, or could tattoo them on their foreheads as reference numbers. Seriously!  

And then there is chai to be had, with chips, salted kaju and burfi, to down all the pyramids of hierarchy floating around. It comes in gold-rimmed bone china, but sans any respite. The first ‘sssslup’ has to come from the high command, like a signal. The cup touches the saucer thereafter, and the other ‘sssslups’ will follow suit. Age no bar, rank bar bar. Cashews will be served in descending order of men’s seniority, no matter that by the time the tray reaches the lower rungs, you are still in queue for your first ‘sssslup’. 

Everything is orderly, don’t mistake me. Disciplined and orderly, and so Serious you will forget what your father looked like when the share market dropped. Who laughs first, who sits first, who stands first, who picks a plate first, who burps first. Yes, Mrs 2006 has to hold hers in till the biggest one burps! Sometimes, it dies a natural death inside, trying its best to come out the other way. But then, you don’t know if the senior most fart saw the light of the day in the celebration today. So Serious the scheme of things, so serious the Condition. 

And finally, when it is time to leave, Mrs. 1980 gets up with her stiff upper lip and back, while the rest of the room bows at angles according to, you guessed it, their husbands’ ranks, before shuffling out of the room to where the cars are parked. The valets understand the Seriousness of the years, and get the official cars in line with that order. Waving hands and a dozen kissing handshonoured to meet you’ later, Mrs 2006 hails her auto and goes home, promising to avenge her sore bum and aching back. After all, she had to bend a full 180 degrees of good bye, no less!

I know you cannot truly understand. After all, I suffer from a serious case of hyperbole myself. I exaggerate, a little, maybe. So I took a picture to illustrate my point about this encounter of the strangest kind.

If there was a single bar of chocolate to be had between the VIP Madams, the scene around the plate would look something like this. No points for guessing who gets to have it. Actually, the one who rightfully rank-fully gets it needs it the most too. Like I said, this gooey yummy chocolate is the best medicine for the Condition of Seriousness that I speak about.

Don't you think so?

Disclaimer, from under the table - No hard fillings for anyone, seriously!

Saturday 22 February 2014

Beating the Written Word to Pulp

When I was a child, I would see my mother giving Mills and Boon to my older cousins. They would banter about the ‘stories’ and I would look at the cover, and blush. A man and a woman in a semi-hug, eyes half closed and expressions of physical love. ‘Why were they reading this?’ I would wonder. In school, surrounded by Patrician Brothers and all things disciplined, the library was a “holy” place. And Blyton to Drew to Wodehouse to maybe Robin Cook to Quiz books to perhaps Jeffrey Archer to definitely Limca Book of Records a traditionally set way. Sidney Sheldon exchanged hands between friends and Harold Robbins only in the inner circle. Blush and hush remained, somewhat. I read the classics, felt safe and sane. And a prudish Miss Muffet too.  

It was on the very first day of pledging 5 whole academic years to studying Literature that I was made to grow up. A professor distributed ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, aghast that we had not read it. Suddenly, the sword meant the male organ in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and all references to ‘pen’ and ‘orbs’ in ‘MacFlecknoe’ were exactly those too. ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was a political satire and George Eliot was actually a woman, writing under a male pseudonym. So many wrote hidden in attics away from all eyes, and an equal number put sex and their sexuality out there just as they deemed fit. I was amazed.

I read Literatures from all continents, and I gradually grew. Not just away from the blush but into a woman who now realized the importance of that Voice – behind the printed word, and in between the written lines. The politics of Silencing too! Reality unfolded, and not just the art of expression but the Right to Express took on a new meaning. And the right to be Read. Just like raising your hand and getting a chance to answer was important to a child’s evolving mind, so was picking up that pen and letting it write for you what the mind held inside. For so many, that moment between the pen and the paper meant reclaiming a sense of Self, true bits of it that social norms and graces often stole away.

And I was introduced to the idea of a ‘Banned Book’, much like the letter ‘A’ in scarlet an adulteress was supposed to wear on her lapel once...

[To read further, please click here.]

Thursday 20 February 2014

Finish-ing School for Men

I just got a plot of land, my own do bigha zameen. Don’t ask me how now. It’s in UP hinterland and no body asks any questions there. I also got a black  bag of money as a gift alongside. It’s a bottomless bag quite like Santa’s sack. I was told – Banao beta, whatever you want to. Set the foundation of your dreams right here. Build karo gallows pillars of steel, or sangmarmar. Right here!

I spent an evening downing spirits and raising mine further, planning all the time – What will I build on this plot of land divine? And then I got it.

Why, a Finishing School for Men.

No no no! Not the kind of fancy school which will teach them those manners. Sit thus and stand on both feet, not tilting your behind like an ass on one side. Open doors to passing ladies, and stare not at their retreating behinds. Don’t wear flat-fronts and if you do, some binders inside please. It’s a metro rail car, not a sleaze fest on wheels. My finishing school will not get into superficialities of polishing the Hallo Maim to Heylo Medem.

My school will only admit men who smilingly accepted a good chunk of their father-in-laws’ wealth in the name of Shagan aka Blessings. Why admit them? Well, to finish them, of course!

Why the serious face? I think you are confused. Wait, read on first.

Say for instance the lethal combination of IIT IIM. Techie MBAs apparently garner the biggest loot, or so I see. Soon as they call home to inform their parents about their selection in some of the premier engineering colleges and then management institutes in the country, the father boasts ‘Ladka kisska hai’ and the mother, after a whispered prayer to God, starts calculating her son’s marital worth with her best friend. On top of that, if God GMAT-willing, the son reaches foreign shores for $-making, the shagan ticker suddenly goes on an over-drive, like a flea infested dog’s tail. IIT tic tic tic – IIM tic tic tic – Goldman Sachs tic tic tic – Condo in San Francisco – tic tic tic … till the ticker itself asks for mercy and stops at a number the father and mother know not how to pronounce. And the guy, in a week’s time, flies home with his accent, picks a bride showing off his fat wallet, turns his face the other way when mummy ji daddy ji do the deal, and to the tune of drum beats sits cushy in his sasur’s gifted limousine and decides to permanently move to India. Why? Better job prospects, and much better inflow of shagan envelopes for occasions and non-occasions, complete. No matter that the woman is equally qualified too. ‘It’s just Indian tradition, babes. We can’t question it. We found trew love, now let the parents do their thing. Yo!’ Such a condition of tradition-al custom-ary matrimony needs redressal, and a good school, no?

Okay, you seem shocked. Well, here's another example.

Every village has a Pappu who passed his UPSC and is now a glorified sarkari babu. Every town too, just like every city has a handful with IAS, IPS, IRS written in font bigger than their names, outside homes they no longer stay in. You clear that exam and out comes a little booklet – Directory of Civil Servants. Servants to public but masters of their own ceremonies. A million Xerox copies with their details and passport sized faces spread all over the nation, like wild fire. And then come suitor-seekers much like the ‘we three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we travel afar’. Yes, parties with marriageable daughters knocking on every hostel door. ‘Hello, I have one daughter. Susheel. Will you marry please? Um, what caste do you enjoy?’ There is no ticker here. Just a SALE painted in red on most doors. And Ma ji Pappa ji’s ageing backs waiting to be scratched. One marries a trader so his export-import is easy-breezy. What is a few trees when woods will be saved for sasur ji? Another revs up his Merc, dusting the lanes of his hamlet. He went for three crores. Even his cows moo a regal mooo, reserved-ly of course. Off they go straight from their baraats on their Bharat dharshan saying ‘We will travel the world, but we cannot do it side-stepping ancestral traditions. This is how it happens in my family. Chalo, you are Mrs. Babu now. You will live like a queen. By the way, how many clothes for the rishteydaars?’ Again I say, such a serious condition of tradition-al custom-ary matrimony needs redressal, and a good school, no?

Just two samples of candidates who may apply to my school. To be finished. Of course, you may know many more. Once I am done with all the sessions of this die-ploma course, their pictures will be hung in the Hall of Shame Fame, depending on their past performances. Please note, full respect will be given to their insistence on the idea of “traditions” and all their cousin "customs", in whatever attire they strut around and no matter how old. The hanging … of the photographs, will all begin with a puja to Saraswati maa, the deity of those books upon books which helped them enter their temples of learning. Followed by lighting the lamp and finally garlanding these martyrs heroes of Modern Day and Age. After all, traditions are important, they themselves insist!    

Admissions open now. Aa jao! Why are you hiding your face? Ab sharmaana kaisa?

Disclaimer - Resemblance to any person living or married is not my fault. The intention is not to hurt, but to show a bitter truth. I still see this sad reality all around. And more kinds than the two I pointed out. A lot goes in the name of 'customs' and 'traditions' and I speak particularly to the men here. Old has to make way for the New. It is time they, if not everyone else, stood up!

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: A plot of Earth - You’re given a plot of land and have the financial resources to do what you please. What’s the plan?]

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Book Review – Sorting Out Sid by Yashodhara Lal

I began by taking a little liberty. I took the title as an open invitation from the author to sort out Sid – for her and with her. What did I find? 

Reading ‘Sorting Out Sid’ is like finding your long lost twin in the World Book Fair – for the young, modern, urban, educated, married, working in a metropolis reality that it shares with you. The book is a story well-woven and told, around a protagonist who draws at our hearts’ strings. Equally capable is Sid of driving you crazy, for he will rise to such depths of stupidity you scream S.O.S. from his idiosyncrasies, or for him from the women who surround him! Maybe even shake him by the shoulders and scream - ‘What are you doing, Mr. Toilet Cleaner?’ 

Here are the bits about the book that stayed with me.    

2 sides to the same coin Sid 

The mind that is Sid’s is crafted and expressed by this female author as if she were a man herself. Skillful use of language plays an important role in that. 

Now, I spotted a Public Performer Sid and a Private Thinker Sid. While the former is the life of every party, the latter gives a dimension to the book that you did not expect to find – Pathos. 

The Performer Sid endears instantly with a misplaced ‘So! When is the baby due?’ just because he spots a belly. ‘Putting on an act wasn’t all that difficult’ and as ‘tiring’ as it may be, he likes to be the life of any party. When in office it’s ‘time to switch on Work Sid’ and no matter what thoughts occupy his mind, everything is ‘Fine, FINE’. Add to this the husband Party-Sid, Arty-Sid and Host-Sid and you know dear Sid has his hands full. Half-way through the book/“sorting” and sitting in the VP’s office we find a ‘bold new and decisive Sid who did not need anyone’s permission for anything’. While Neha still feeds his love for ‘an attentive listener' Sid seems to have come into his own. Part III and many battles later Sid openly snaps at his friend Aditi an ‘it’s not your business’ in his voice, the one from inside. Mandira too is told to ‘stop giving me relationship advice now’. But even now he muses ‘he was losing his touch – the mask slipping would mean the end of everything’. The Performer Sid does not want to die, even if his laughs metamorphose into ‘series of … muffled wheezing wails’. Even though he ‘too was a manly man’ by the end of the book, with a voice and choices, never before nor now did he wash his dirty linen in public or pass judgements. Why, he even defended the HR Vixen. Very telling indeed!  

But if we scratch the surface ever so lightly and dig deeper we meet the Private Thinker Sid. 

Sid has more than one Achilles’s heels. Self-doubts rule supreme. Meeting new people and driving at night make him nervous. He silently wishes ‘he could have made it to 6 feet’ apart from semi-rejecting Mandira’s idea of his ‘weak chin’. His baby-face he thinks earns him lesser respect than his age deserves and Aditi’s ‘good boy’ gnaws at his innards. He wants to be taken seriously, but can the Performer Sid allow that? And then, his marriage falling apart starts showing as he hopes for a phone call that ‘Maybe his day was finally about to turn around’. We see how this ‘maybe’ tails his thoughts throughout the book, however, things run their own course to sort out and sort him out too. A sadness lurks around Sid’s persona now. Even as he sips beer singing, ‘Come here my dear, you are so near … please have no fear, I love my beer’ one senses how much he cares about home, but how he continues to perform, to his own self now. To be able to ‘speak without being judged’ is his dream, and a ‘goodnight … Mandy’ still whispered as he sleeps on Brownie. He stays with his thoughts, mostly confused ‘he didn’t think he was short in providing her with love – or had he?’ Even though we do not see him sitting and sorting it out with Mandira, we find him addressing these questions in his mind. Sid’s thoughts also tell us how sensitive he is. ‘He would be divorcing her whole family now’ and that saddens him. He continues to feel ‘every bit of her hurt and embarrassment as if it were his own’. And despite becoming a VP, even as he continues to say ‘Good. GOOD’ he wonders - ‘where was that feeling – of excitement, of happiness … of something besides this numbness?’ Despite all the nasty things Aditi says to him ‘his ears were still ringing from all the horrible things he had said to her. What was wrong with him?’ As quick to feel sorry as wallow in self-doubt, if only Sid expressed his thoughts to the people surrounding him, perhaps he would have lived a more sorted life. 


Depiction of Marriage, and some Real Questions 

The book contains more than one ‘kind’ of marriage. However, it is Yashodhara’s depiction of Sid and Mandira’s marriage, as well as reasons for their failures that touched me as poignant. 

Sid and Mandira are two poles. Her ‘military precision’ and Sid’s love for Brownie do not meet at a golden mean. Things worsen till Sid bitterly thinks how ‘talking never sorted out anything for anybody’. Is not lack of communication a major factor for driving so many marriages to the docks? Sid attempts to ‘gross out’ the motherly women around him, certainly enough to slam doors of any serious conversations. Sid, like so many, shirks advice and in the process, the reality of his own situation. Then, his not being ready for a child yet thinking to himself – ‘Maybe it wouldn’t have been all that bad – after all he was great with kids. But since she had ranted and raged … he stayed firm with his ‘not ready for a child yet’ stance’ makes it seem like a childish defiance, on Sid’s part. After 15 years of marriage, Mandira failed to see the repressed play-acting Sid and Sid, too busy with his roles, perhaps failed at addressing Mandira’s deep-founded worries of age and a wish of becoming a mother someday. ‘The Dead End’ they reach makes us realize their “contributions” to it. Sid’s ‘it’s my marriage that has been flushed down the drain – the very reason I took up the toilet company job. Ironic, isn’t it’ simply makes us nod our head at the sad irony.  

Parents – the quirky but loving Constants 

The most beautifully woven relationship that the book carries for me is the one that the young characters share with their parents. The detailing is done so honestly, yet sensitively. ‘Your mother’s very upset was his father’s code for ‘I am very upset’ and his father’s ‘It’s expected’ is a phrase that irks Sid, and reminds us of so many fathers. Maybe our own too? Parents continue to occupy our minds just as Sid remembers his father ‘whacking the daylights out of him’ when he bit his mother as a child. As an adult, ‘his privacy invaded in such a blatant manner’ by his visiting parents is a guilty-thought the readers share. But Sid ‘could tell they were mystified and hurt, and appeared to find solace in his bedroom’ and we realise how we children, no matter what, understand them. Family does mean parents to Sid when he leans back on his new VP chair, single again. ‘Oh God … was it possible that he was actually missing his parents?’ But it’s a fact that he does not want to admit. Again, like so many of us.

Sid’s feelings for his mother are sheer beauty. Just by keeping her hand on his arm ‘he knew what she was saying – you can tell me anything, son. I’m your mother’. His irritation is because ‘he could never hope to pay her back’ and how his parents continue to be ‘so … from another planet altogether … stuck in a time warp’. Your thoughts about yours too? When he breaks the news of his divorce to his mother over the phone, ‘as usual, she was offering to protect him … it was obvious she would try to do this till the end of her life’. His father over-eats gulab jamuns, his way of trying to ‘drown his sorrows silently in sugary syrup’. These 3, we realize, are perhaps the most important threesome that Cynthia was talking about. In the parents are ‘polar opposites … one would think … over the course of about 40 years of togetherness, balanced out one another’. They are married. Sid and Mandira are not any more. Is their time-tested value system of making-it-work something the author is quietly endorsing here?      

Just so between Neha and her mother, who 'managed to get under Neha’s skin’ pointing out lifestyle flaws or safety lapses in her house. She was just ‘paranoid about everything’ but Neha realized ‘she meant well’. Neha says it all when she says ‘you think things change with our parents after we become parents, like somehow we start appreciating them more?’ 

Quirky or not, children find in their parents unconditionally caring constants in a world of uncertain situations - in the book as well as around it. 

Easy wit and delightful humour 

And look how serious I got trying to sort out Sid. So involved, that I absolutely forgot to mention how the author, with her delightful wit, kept me from permanently sinking into a well of pity for Sid. While the book is about serious issues, the wit the author commands keeps us from getting our ‘kerchiefs out. If we do, it is only because we are misty-eyed with laughter. I had smileys in pencil adorning most of the pages, and I had ‘Ha ha!’ scribbled in the choicest of places. 

Sid congratulates Neha ‘for having … delivered so well’ and gloats over Meenakshi’s extra attention ‘perhaps his innate animal magnetism had finally struck her’ making me smile. ‘And where there is beer, there was hope’ and did I catch you smile too? ‘Trusssst in meeee, jusssst in meeee’ and on the floor I rolled, while Akash’s entry in office through a ‘secret sports quota’ made me wonder the same for my colleagues. Cynthia’s ‘another card with a picture of some dude who apparently went by the handle Archangel Michael’ was guffaw-funny and did you know an ‘executive washroom, posh and clean … is Vee-Pee’? I am yet to get the image of Sid holding Kippy in his lap out of my mind. Or of Sid’s heart sinking when Shiv ‘rose to shake his hand … and kept rising … further … and further’. The cherry on the cake is Sid’s ‘Have found her here with a guy. Come quick!’ When you read it, tell me if this was not funny, what is! It is only Mandira’s sense of humour that had ‘died a sad death over the last few years. And one has to be respectful for the dead’. Well, amen!

There is an interesting juxtaposition of serious with funny. Like, an instant easing of tension. 

One minute we see Sid musing over Mandira and EMIs and another sentence down he ‘realised it was rather unmanly to be using his wife’s Dove Shower Gel and loofah’. Remembering a heated discussion about having a child or not is quickly replaced with ‘felt like replacing her Coalgate toothpaste tube with a tube of Odomos’. In the saddest monologue Sid shares with the bean bag the ‘you’re never going to sleep with my wife. Or leave me without a knife’ makes us smile.

Just as Sid dilutes situations for himself by waxing funny, the author does so, to keep us hooked to this reality, without turning it into a melodrama. Thus, the tone seamlessly shuttles between serious and funny.     

That Thing Called Closure’, but I am not satisfied

I am happy to hear Sid say ‘Im still … sorting myself out. You know? Work in progress’, much like Neha’s paintings. And Neha add ‘we’re all still figuring it out’. But what left me uncomfortable was the treatment meted out to Mandira as a character. A blanket rejection of her seems to come through, and I wonder why. Why is she the unspoken one, ignored without a second thought, when every other character has found a place in the scheme of things – whether through forgiveness or through forgetting? (Yes, even Neha's ex!) I wish the mind behind those ‘dark circles’ she develops by the middle of the story was shown to us, or given a fitting farewell. For after all, she was Sid’s wife and the reason around which Sid remoulds himself, or unfolds the drama that he is. 

A telling thought that stuck to my mind came from the mouth of a minor character, Krish, which defines my idea of the book – ‘If you don’t find yourself difficult to live with, you’re unlikely to find anyone else difficult’. And by the end of the book, ‘for the first time Sid felt that taking complete responsibility wasn’t a burden. In fact, it brought an incredible sense of freedom.’ 

Sorting out Sid’ is a quick-stepped narration that trots the story forward, a real story we can spot in our own milieus. A reality so real, either from our own life or from our neighbour’s. So real, it makes you become a part of the book instantly. It makes us think, as it makes us look around. And it makes us laugh out loud. Thanks to Sid and his ‘Sid-dom’, of course!

I recommend it for the strength with which it brings home the point of new-age relationships and the gentleness and delightful humour with which it does!

Title: Sorting Out Sid
Author: Yashodhara Lal
Publisher: Harper Collins

Friday 14 February 2014

An Ode to 2 Odes, in Prose

This is not about Who I love. This is about What I love. 

And I tell you – I love words, the spoken ones too, but here I speak about the written words. How used how not. The pictures they create in my mind, and the chains of thought. The craft of putting one before the other, or something amiss with the whole structure, making me frown. Thinking, could this have been better? And then re-writing the sentence, anew. Leaning back to read those words strung together again. A smile on my face reflective of a satisfied mind, or the pencil scratching my head – this doesn’t look right! 

Words. The games they play, and the games we play with them.

And when you say ‘Ode’ on a day that stands for love, I think of 2 written long back. No, not by me, dear me! But by two poets who mastered their words – in ivory towers or sitting under trees. Even in the busiest of streets. Scribbled or typed, but always streams of thought, put in a language such that not a word I would dare change. Here’s them odes that I often go back to, and if you ask me why, I myself know not. Perhaps because these two odes rest unblemished by popularity. Also because while conventionally an Ode is supposed to be emotional and introspective, these here charm by being exactly the opposite.  

A few waltzing words, and the thoughts they conjure in my mind. Oh, I love! 

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat
Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes


Now, Gray was a mid-18th century poet, and unlike most others, he had inherited sufficient to not write for Grub Street. He read for amusement and wrote for the same reason too. No wonder then that humour ran in his veins and out his pen too. No wonder again that when he was asked to write an epitaph for his friend’s cat who drowned in a fish bowl, this is what he wrote. Here are a few lines (with many skipped in between): 

‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
The pensive Selima reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
She saw; and purred applause.

Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:

She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?

Presumptuous maid!
Again she stretched, again she bent.
(Malignant Fate sat by and smiled.)
She tumbled headlong in.

She mewed to every watery God
No cruel Tom nor Susan heard.
A favourite has no friend.

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know one small step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
Not all that glisters gold.

Notice the controlled humour in this mock-epic - a composition using grand images to describe the most mundane. Also realize how the ode, an otherwise emotional piece, is actually devoid of any feelings for a dead animal. And this was supposed to be an epitaph! Look how it’s laden with moral and sexual undertones. If you can, keep aside the unflattering references to womenkind in the guise of the Narcissistic proud, gold (fish) greedy and over-reaching kitty, and see how the cat and woman blend. This masterfully written and endearing ode never fails to make me smile at my own kind. 'What female heart can gold despise?’ and yes he means to say a rich man no woman can ignore, today or back then in the London of yore. Keep those claws in, dear cats, and let us forgive him. Partly because it's a day for love, and partly because he's right! As for Fate? Are not we just playthings in the hands of our ‘Watery Gods’? Now that’s a thought to calm the mind! 

Ode to the Tomato


You know Neruda – Neftali Ricardo Reyes, the much quoted Latin American poet. Of course you know! Now, his odes were known for their mastery of imagery and the skill of raising mundane objects to sublime heights. Simple language, simple technique, but deliciously cooked. Yes, this Ode is like a salad in the making. Single word lines make us read and read further as if we’re adding ingredients to the bowl. Step by step. While he is alluding to American culture behind all the red of the tomatoes, read this and tell me if it’s not enjoyable without that dimension too. Just pure pictures of culinary delight with an eye for detail and ahem, violence in the kitchen too. (Some lines skipped)

The street drowns in tomatoes:
in two
and the streets
run with juice.
the tomato
cuts loose,
takes over lunches,
too bad we most
a knife
into its living pulp,
beds cheerfully
with the blonde onion
and to celebrate
lets itself fall
over the gaping hemispheres,
we have the day’s
parsley flaunts
its little flags.
its time!
lets go!
and upon the table
show off
their convolutions,
and plenitudes
and the abundance
without husk,
or scale or thorn,
grant us
the festival
of ardent colour
and all-embracing freshness.

Our commonplace buy from the vegetable guy is celebrated in Latin America. It connotes beauty and fun and forms a meal for everybody. Yes, no elitism! A life without pretences and an ordinary that is celebration-worthy. So Neruda, including how he inscribes his geographical identity and nationality in an ode written for tomatoes! Did you feel the build-up of momentum? Like a painting being created. And the after-effect? A feeling of festivity and celebration. A poem I look at as romantic, because it makes us look at the most ordinary with such wonderment. Isn't it? 

A few waltzing words, and the thoughts they conjure in my mind. Oh, I love! 

Happy Valentine’s.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: Cupid’s Arrow - It’s Valentine’s Day, so write an ode to someone or something you love. Bonus points for poetry!]

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Book Review - Losing My Religion by Vishwas Mudagal

The book was read and I was reading about Vishwas Mudagal. Soon as I saw 1981 in his introduction, I shot a glance at my husband. The look meant exactly what the mind thought, and the tongue said – ‘He’s your age, this author. Look what he has managed!’ Let me beep off the conversation that followed, just domestic marital bliss no more. But let me show you why I say with full conviction that ‘Losing my Religion’ was a refreshing find in a hall full of young Indian authors writing in English. And I promise, my love for REM’s music did not colour my mind.

The Dedication and the Prologue seemed to come from a nose that rests high up in the air. And so they got me interested instantly. The book is about Entrepreneurs, ‘the Beasts … who rise … who run the world’ and if this was not enough bloated pride, the Prologue soon after claimed exclusivity for those “rebels” by stating that history is about a ‘few good men who kicked ass’. I got my challenge cut out then. What does he mean by an ‘entrepreneur’ and is that the author’s idea of a hero who creates history? Also, what does ‘losing my religion’ stand for in the book?

The answers to both the questions were intertwined and formed the basis of this gripping novel, circling around the young ‘fallen entrepreneur’ protagonist, Rishi, the people Chance throws his way, the situations that unfold as Fate and the drum-beating grand finale of sheer young Genius at play. Yes, the book is a bildungsroman of sortsa coming of age story. Here are my first impressions.

What’s perfect 10 in the book – Portrayal of Youth Crisis

The ‘bitter, impatient, intolerant’ Rishi wakes up from a nightmare that we have all dreamt. A reflection of a career in crisis and a being suffocating in the usual. His question ‘What’s stopping you?’ to himself, when he mulls over the offer-in-hand is an oft-asked one from our lives. And relationships getting ‘frayed’ at the edges, thanks to the stress, make us nod our heads understandingly. With one friend who is always appearing for interviews and another who company hops, Rishi in this milieu is introduced to us as a picture of Us.

The existential crisis which is making him fight ‘a different battle’ is the one making him feel ‘dead inside’. A post-modernist angst about the meaningless of life surrounds him. He sighs – ‘Enough of chasing dreams … I am … faithless. Need a fresh start.’ It is this portrayal of strife in the mind that is so effectively achieved as to make the reader you feel a character from within the book’s leaves. An instant connect is formed. Empathy for Rishi, and an understanding of his storms. Interestingly, Rishi is not impulsive or fatalistic. This deeply introspective character is handled maturely by the author and is perhaps reflective of the author’s own maturity.

However, Rishi’s rejection of his Present and that ‘God doesn’t exist’ may leave you wondering – Is it really the end of the world for him? He’s intelligent and sane, so is this depression hyperbolic, especially since he has a job offer in his pocket? Only when we read further, we realize what disturbs him is his role in the greater scheme of things. Or the lack of one.

No wonder then, that the book proceeds much like a “Pilgrim’s Progress”, with Rishi learning and unlearning alongside characters and situations placed such that he has no choice but to grow – forward. He throws his ‘piece of bondage’ away and lives a cellular-free life when he wanted to be ‘just with himself’. Revealing moments of his crisis-ridden self are interspersed throughout the book, often in unprepared moments like fishing, or video-gaming. He hates heights ‘as if something was pulling him down’ and lives now in a ‘self-created cocoon’. Most importantly, with every new chapter in his life ‘he was getting restless again’ – a restlessness that is so symbolic to our generation which wants a new Sun day after day. It is only when, much into the book, Kyra asks him – ‘Why are you so overconfident always?’ that we realize the old Rishi is coming back. And somewhere around there, we hear the author say – ‘he saw chaos. But he knew there was a method to this madness. It was somewhere.’ Is this Vishwas Mudagal’s silver lining message for the youth? An answer to the post-modernist angst and restlessness which is looking for a more meaningful tomorrow? This method in madness he speaks about, perhaps to be seized and made use of?

Who is the “Beast” from the Dedication?

Through Rishi and various characters, Vishwas moulds an ideal entrepreneur’s image for us, without sounding preachy.

Today’s heroes want to be the ‘talk of the industry’ because we no longer ask - what does your father do? Our name is ours to carve, and Rishi wants to be his own boss too, certain ‘he could not work for anyone else’. Self-made, proud and how! A hero believes his ‘philosophy of gaming was revolutionary’, even if the masses don’t, and avows ‘my belief in my belief was astounding’. Just like Alex enjoys an ‘ability to not be a victim of his past’. Both, for all their confidence, carry humility enough to apologise to the village council in Malana for no wrong done. Sense of self and sense of other, combined wonderfully! No surprise then, that it is in this setting, a town removed from all things known, that Rishi learns to view his past life objectively. An act important in shaping him as a person, especially in his role as a burnt-out entrepreneur. The simplicity of the hill people and their code of honour touch him. And sitting in his shack in Goa later, we realize he has already grown enough to find ‘just a simple, more profound reasoning … following your heart’ for his present situation.

The entrepreneur in him is never dead, just reborn along the story many times. The feeling of being free, yet being involved. When a cheap cell phone becomes a ‘symbol of freedom’. When travelling makes him feel ‘this bonding with humanity … with yourself … freed me … desire to succeed ate me up, and I stopped living … I feel reborn now’.  And when the idea of paying back the Malalis for the bag of “gifts” they found and used is spoken about, we know the author is talking of an entrepreneur with a heart. That the youth of today are not devoid of values, universal values common to those from across the world. Any false bravado is made to shed multiple times as the protagonist admits he’s ‘weak and vulnerable’, and even Alex says ‘I accept my past. I neither rejoice nor mourn it’. The coconuts make their guest appearance to affirm how an entrepreneur needs no AC offices to work his merit. Finally, all side-characters who help him in his adventures are full of street-smart wisdom that the author tries to amply emphasise and celebrate at the same time. Guess education is no pre-requisite to genius is the clear message.

In Kyra we meet the female hero who is ready to ‘give up all that I lived for’ but only after re-visiting her real life, because a shack in Goa was ‘not me’ at one point of time. And how the ‘gaming friendship’ turns into something else is entirely controlled by her. ‘I want my own identity’ and every aspect which is ‘nothing short of brilliant’ and we see her earn it. And how!  The final ‘I accept the challenge’ makes us pat their backs, as the book shifts from 3rd gear to an action-packed 5th simply by this announcement. And we know by now the heroes are looking for a ‘worthy fight’, which is exactly why they are the confident ‘Beasts’ being glorified in the Prologue.

It is Wolf who comes across as an anti-thesis to Rishi, Kyra and Alex. He epitomizes “acquire or destroy”. If business strategies that are ‘moral, ethical and human’ are one end of the spectrum, Wolf is the other. And when it’s ‘time to hunt the Wolf’ down, we cannot help but think – Are the youth of today disillusioned because of mentors like Wolf? Is this the point where old have to make way for the ways of the new?

8/10 for language, shaab ji

A book well-written is a relief. It keeps the story running smoothly and alive in the mind much after it has been devoured cover to cover. ‘Losing my Religion’ needs language to support a plot which goes from lazing on the beach to high-rising in NYC, or else, the grip of the plot will fall. Two outstanding ways in which language earns these marks from me are:

Alex and Rishi’s relationship – Beautifully born, wonderfully developed and superbly portrayed. They are introduced to us as two faces of ‘vagabond’, and even as Rishi initially rejects Alex as ‘junkie turned guru, eh?’ we know Alex is important. Alex’s ‘I was born lost and I love it’ makes us cling to him as fresh breeze, even though till far into the book Rishi does not connect with him. I do – not just because he reminds me of so many such wandering in Rishikesh, my hometown’s neighbour, but also because I itch to tell Rishi, “Hey, look close, there’s something about Alex that you need to see!” I agree, his ‘I don’t even think about life’ is an extreme idea difficult to warm up to, and more often than not he comes across as aimless, but being exactly in the skin that Rishi longs to be in makes him the best thing that happens to Rishi, to finally make Rishi pronounce – ‘Blondie, you are the brother I never had’.  

Humour & side characters – The author uses language skilfully. Minor characters mouth dialects of their milieu, not just sounding authentic but guffaw-funny (if that’s a word!). Chauhan’s ‘Saab, revolver mein goli daal doon?’ and Ram Singh’s ‘You king of goat, Alex ji’ made me make fountains of water all over my book. Nothing beat the strength of that fountain as Laxman’s ‘Ooo thand hai na shaabji, time lageyga. Thand mein niklata nahi na asaani sey’.  Inspector Dogra needs more than a lesson in biology when he goes looking for Johnson, the smuggler, despite being told what exactly it is a euphemism for. And Pappu’s ‘oye hoye’ is something I get to hear a lot, being in his neighbourhood! I sit back, giggling, and thinking confidently how ‘all pahadis believes it, by God say’ how well humour scenes are served to us in this book.

Where are those 2 points lost?

No, not the typos on two pages. In the descriptions, of nature and of streets. The journey to Malana must have been more than just ‘pristine and perfect’ but we are not allowed to imagine. Haridwar is abuzz, but more from experience than from what the book holds. However, there is a bigger problem with language, and I cut 2 whole marks there. Ruthlessly!

Somewhere in the middle of the book, the language waxes cheesy with Rishi and Kyra discussing love, separation and reunion in words straight out of a lesser-mature novel. Even when Rishi becomes a recluse as a love-stuck un-bathed man, we are not prepared to write him off as an unshaven Devdas and find it difficult to accept this side of his person. I failed to ‘experience’ a portion of the plot, where neither language nor Rishi’s portrayal is intelligently used or done, respectively. Also, where is Rishi’s family? We have heard of Alex’s and met Kyra’s. But not a single phone call over a period of years is an absence that stands out as a lacuna in the plot, for me.

It is only the edge-of-seat to and fro of the reality show that finally made me forgive and forget the clich├ęd dialogues I was made to read in a portion of the book. And at the point of finale ‘Fate had something different in store. And fate likes irony’. But this bit is for you to savour first-hand!

The story is strong, delivered through a good-looking plot. The characters well-rounded and believable. But the USP of ‘Losing my Religion’ remains the portrayal of youth in crisis, the idea of entrepreneurship and the final topical reality show showdown which we popularly call the climax.

Rishi, and the author, at one point in the book, say – ‘Leap out of the existence you have wrapped around yourself … you’ll fall no doubt. But sometime during that, you’ll witness a miracle taking shape around you. That’s called losing my religion’.

Pick the book, and find yourself in its pages.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Karma Chameleon

I’m a Karma Chameleon. 

Oh no, not the hit Culture Club song which was born the same year as me, one nine eight three, coincidentally. And when it took birth, Boy George had to say this about Karma as he saw it: 

"Basically, if you aren't true, if you don't act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that's nature's way of paying you back."

Picture of Album cover - stolen from www

When I was born, nothing of the sort was said. Of course, praise to do with my chubby cheeks and dimpled chin reached the chandelier hanging on the roof. That I was the cutest baby swinging in that nursery, and that even my burps were pure melody. And that one day, going by the diameter of my head the doctor measured with a stethoscope, it was said that I would rule the world for many lifetimes to come. Many. So big my head, so intelligent it had to be. I await that once-in-many-lifetimes coronation. And while I walk in this one proud as a plum, I take George’s word to heart. But do I want to be reincarnated or do I want to vanish into thin air as something which no one has ever confirmed?  

Oh Boy, if George is to be believed, I need to stop sucking up to make sure I am not born a toad the next life. Why, to not be born at all! To attain freedom from the cycles of birth, I need to act true to myself, despite the politeness the tall, fair, convent-educated bear as a burden. Do good, only when I think I should. Talk gratitude, only when I feel it. Lap that behind almost never, till the other thinks I’m devil’s own prudish child, or something close. 

For instance, if I throw pop-corn at the guy in front of me for farting in the movie hall, Karma-justice will be happy. I will not be reborn as a pop-corn holder that meets the bin, because I was true to my feelings within. Then, at that certain O’clock of re-birth, the long hands of karma will not come pounding down on me, but rather arrive to pat my back and say – ‘Remember girl, you hit the leaking WC with your husband’s shampoo bottle 37 times, because it disturbed your sleep. For that, you will no longer be born with frizzy hair. You will no longer be born at all.’ And I fly with the lightness of hair and being!

What is this karma theory all about? All this cause and effect. Confuses the bird-brain out of me, as you may see! 

If I am to be true to my heart, where am I to hide that sneer when I cuddle the neighbour’s new born monkey, falsely compliment him for the nose that is after the mother’s middle finger and the teeth after the granny, yet to show. I am to be honest all the time, right? How else will I be freed from this body? Social graces be damned! My feelings which tear my innards into 23 different pieces when with dirty shoes someone’s one-in-a-million princess jumps on my sofa with glee. Mummy looks the other way, sipping tea, eating cake, talking with food in her mouth. I sit looking at those dirty sandals touching beige, wondering, karma you devil, will you be the end of me even before my O’clock comes? 

With arms wide open I am to avoid air kissing the botox. Not compliment the dress that sits uncomfortable on the body that sits comfortably inside it, propped on heels and high on salon bills. Madam, false lashes do not become you, I will say, especially since they match not the colour of your brows, or brow pencil! No more just a ‘you too’ when ‘looking good’ I hear for myself. Throw truth to the face, to all 56 layers of paint on it. Hope it does good, for I am being good and honest. Tell face-paint’s husband his tee needs a heavy iron. Define formal wear and walk off, with a shocked scowl directed at this worn-out pants, graces be damned. With holes even. Sheesh! Karma, I’m honest and hey, guess what, I’m getting to enjoy it now.

Go over to grey-haired and show her my mind. No, not bend my knees in elderly respect but tell her she needs to take a hike, arthritis or not. Get those lungs free from webs she mouths around. Not listen to myths of child rearing or fossilized tales feeding patriarchy, coming in voices sweet as saccharine but from hearts cheap as fake watches. Chinese. Tell them to shut it. Not ruin what’s mine. Leave them to karma’s hands, but only after telling them what I feel, and how they made me feel. Only because I need to be free, in this life and next birth onwards most certainly. 

The clouds have cleared. Karma, you don’t bump off my head any more. I see it now. What’s to be done and how. But before anything, I need to leave my own mask aside. Keep myself from wearing it. Let my real face do the talking. Ready, Karma?

So here goes! Let me begin the honesty-brigade with you. Why does one pay for crimes committed in this life only in the next? A bloody courier reaches me in a day, while your knuckle raps will only on the other side of this life time? Are you snail slow, or is this a way of saying – Err away, you human. Tomorrow never comes but tomorrow never dies either! Obfuscating yourself further.


You know what, I just changed my mind. 

I’ll deal with your hands in the next life time. In this, I will suck up to every behind till it pronounces me the queen of goodness kindness calmness cuteness politeness. It’s fun Being Good, also called Being Human. And it’s in fashion too. The ever-green leather pumps variety, not the bell bottom kind. Don't believe me? Get an account on FB! 

So that’s how I change my mind. Take a U-turn.

I told you, I’m a Karma Chameleon. Oh no, not the hit Culture Club song which was born the same year as me, one nine eight three, coincidentally.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: Karma chameleon - Reincarnation. Do you believe in it?]

Monday 3 February 2014

Book Review: Baramulla Bomber by Clark Prasad

When you read - “Quantum Physics meets Bible and Vedas in Background of Kashmir and Cricket” on the cover, 3 things can happen. One, you do no pick the book up fearing a potpourri of ideas mish-mashed together confusedly in the form of a thriller. Two, your curiosity makes you pick it up, since never before have you seen all those areas covered in one book. Or three, you see Cricket and the fan in you picks it up instantly, only to realize later that this is not Gavaskar’s ‘Sunny Days'. 

I did neither. I was sent the book for a review by the horse himself. And truth be told, I assumed I was going to take a while to read this book – a genre I call an ‘acquired taste’, much like beer! On top of that, Physics on the front cover did not bring back pleasant memories from school days. Thus, I started reading the book with a closed mind, only to see it gradually open up and get fully engaged with what the 300 odd pages held. 

I finished reading the book in a day, and then I thought about it for another. 

The winner? Plot.

A science fiction espionage thriller needs a gut-gripping story woven into a plot that holds you. Clark Prasad’s Baramulla Bomber has that plot. Using Swedish Intelligence Officer Adolf’s stream of thought from the book itself – ‘The more one loop closes the more others open up.’ There are wheels within wheels, turning with the help of suspense intelligently delivered. Multiple threads run parallel and even when one takes a back seat, another is born to take its place without confusing the reader. All loose ends are neatly tied up by the time you reach the end of the book, except one, which points towards the sequel. Let me mention some twisty areas without playing Ms Spoiler. 

The call Samir makes right after Mansur’s ‘timber shattered’ debut sees him say – ‘Insha Allah we will have our victory and Mansur will bring us freedom, dead or alive.’ It sets the scene and pulls us into believing something that is actually so far from the truth. And just a few pages later, the elderly gentleman speaking to Carina says – ‘The one who we may need to protect is the one we are spying upon, Mansur Haider’ making us sit up and wonder, why Mansur? Saloni’s introduction made me go ‘ah!’ followed by the thrilling skiing scene of action, and later, more truths-untruths came tumbling out. Adolf chancing upon Aahana in Dharamshala, asking ‘who are you … friend or foe’ pushes the plot into a different gear altogether. Coincidences like Ann giving Adolf crucial links to a certain head hunt or magical ones like the little bird which sits on Mansur’s bat propel the plot forward in smooth skilful ways. And then, the carpet takes us by surprise! By the time we are made to realize Mikaela’s musical role on stage we are almost used to breathing out wows. As the book draws to a close, Carina’s thoughts about a fellow Guardian are exactly ours too when she muses – ‘He was playing us all along …’ because we realize we were played all along too! By Clark, of course!    

An experimental form/structure which intersperses the text with satellite images, maps, newspaper cuttings, cables, blog posts and even a chat exchanged complete with smileys add to the ‘effect’ the plot works towards creating.  

What disappoints? The language.

The Language fails to do justice to the story-line, so much so that you think the plot would have been better off rendered as a movie. Let me give you some examples for pronouncing that judgment. But before that let me add, I liked the cricket descriptions and can see the author knows his game, but my love affair with descriptions in the book begins and ends there. Most opening paragraphs of chapters are badly written. ‘Six hundred plus capacity Alexander Hall’, ‘Come to my beachside property’, ‘Samir took a sharp intake of breath … as he let out the air’, ‘Dr. Nasir … salivated his throat before continuing’, ‘summarise it for me in a few lines’, ‘windy and misty morning’ read either as strange constructions or school-ish ones. Then, the meetings in PMO in preparation for war or in SOG HQ seem more like those discussing who the next floor manager of a BPO will be, and not coming out of the high profile world of espionage. Also, while the plot makes us travel across the world, the conversations that the characters of different nationalities exchange do not seem to come from different geographical and cultural contexts. One world is a concept the author takes to heart, literally. As for direct speech? The plethora of information the author tries to use in the book needs to be explained to a common reader. But when he puts explanations about ‘string of pearls’ and even description of Kahwa as direct speech, it makes us feel more like students than readers to an intriguing thriller. The suspense gets broken by these encyclopedic gaps, if you know what I mean. 

The charmer? Agastya.

Since the direct speeches are under-developed, characterization suffers. None of the many characters develop as well-rounded individuals by the end of the book. At best, they remain flat. However, what is cleverly done is the use of their streams of consciousness in italics – not just to give us a peek into their minds but also to propel the story forward with important revelations of plots in them. Full marks to the author for doing that! Thanks to this technique, two characters stand tall above the crowd. Agastya and Mansur, and I confidently call them the mouth-pieces of the author too.

Agastya, India’s Home Minister, is introduced to us as a seasoned politician when he muses ‘when the time comes, we have to ask ourselves just how much we would be … willing to sacrifice’. We are told he ‘didn’t care for war. It was never a solution for him. If people could be won over, then wars could be prevented’. Blunt dialogues like ‘America is a golden goose for Pakistanis … learnt no lesson’ make the author’s mind known to us. When he says ‘The spread of evil is a symptom of a vacuum … moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no compromise on basic principles’ he has won me over completely. It is only in the Epilogue that I take a U-turn, all speeches on humanity and peace forgotten, as he ominously announces - ‘Dead or Alive, Mansur is going to be made a hero; it does not matter. The nation is important.’ Agastya’s use and abuse of Mansur and real-life like fluctuations between duty and principles makes him one of the most interesting characters to me.

Mansur’s portrayal is not something the author worked hard on. But then, we know more about the author through Mansur. On his morning run 2 weeks after being made a part of the cricketing team, we see him bowing to the Hazratbal mosque and soon to the holy Shivalingam on top of the mountain. The water the priest offers is a ‘life saver’ to him and beautifully converges different religions in his tolerant person. The UN Assembly scene, even though bordering on pure rhetoric, sees the author speaking to us through Mansur about – ‘Freedom from hatred. I want freedom of the human spirit’. Full of misplaced grandeur as the chapter may be, poignant lines on world peace mark his and Agastya’s speech.  But Mansur’s portrayal remains secondary to his other more important persona – that of Baramulla Bomber – a persona representing the various themes the book plays around with.

The selling point? Questions.

The thematic questions that the book raises are topically relevant and issues the reader is being invited to realise. Religion, God, sacred texts, wars, world dominance, geo-political strategies, pawns and the idea of ‘I’ and ego, all rear their heads, and not necessarily to be calmed down with answers. They are questions asked, and seeking answers in each individual reader's mind.

God’s power unleashed’ is what Clark calls the first atomic explosion successfully tested. That ‘God has been tamed’ through science and that power now lay at man’s fingertips. In God rests such power of destruction? And by connection, is religion a destructive force? The meeting of the Guardians sees the elder confidently pronounce – ‘We can still manipulate this planet’. Is man trying to rise to Godhead, and over-reaching? The speech is followed by his death. Is that a divine consequence of this hubris? 

The ancient Jericho weapon to be used itself is a symbol of Hindu Muslim and Christian “unity”, of sounds. The same sound that connects religions now is being used to destroy. Is this the only way different faiths can converge? In the form of a destructive idea? 

One can see the author’s religious leanings, somewhat. General Pervez says ‘Damn the Indians … a new world order of the pure will rise’ and that ‘I need to spill blood to bring justice to the holy land’ clearly showing how religious politics breeds hatred, how the idea of ‘pure’ takes a destructive form in the mind of this Muslim. Interestingly, he is the only character clearly side-lined by the author, with his UN speech called ‘usual rhetoric’. Nasir, a fellow Muslim, is the arch villain. The madrassa is shown as a terror camp. And we cannot help but spot an anti-Islam current, can we? However, when the author makes Nasir rely on Vedas for building that weapon, and using a fellow Muslim Mansur to bring him down, we are made to rethink that leaning instantly. So is Clark really saying that all religions of the world rest guilty of causing wars equally? Or is he taking two-steps back from his brave stand that comes across as an undercurrent at various places?

Nasir is using the knowledge contained in the Vedas to wreak destruction. He calls it ‘knowledge from the God’s themselves’. Is he saying, Gods are a source of destructive knowledge? Or is it man’s interpretation of His words? His speech to the military generals in the beginning of the book clarifies that transferring knowledge of the sacred texts does not make it suffer from ‘any of the material defects which the humans also suffer from’. So it’s confirmed then, that man interprets God’s words to his own means and ends. Just like he is using the Vedas in a very anti-Veda way. Even later in the book, Nasir pronounces with hubris that ‘the power is now mine …’ reeking of an ‘I’ manipulating religion and science to serve its own ends. Is not man at the centre of all destruction then? Can we blame God?

The author makes Dr. Tamang answer that for us, saying there is ‘no free will, only universal determinism; every random behaviour has a pattern and it is pre-destined’. There! Now, is religion a destructive force? Or man’s use of it? No. Seems like it was all predestined to happen anyway. Baramulla Bomber, representing Kashmiri youth as pawns in the hands of larger powers is parallel to mankind as pawns in God’s hands. For is not predestination exactly that? So we can hold God responsible, can we not?

And among all the question marks, where is God? Kasha, Carina and Mikaela are the only three women who seem to be in touch with His ways. Kasha says ‘answers lie at the top. Look in the direction of your God. Up! Up!’, Mikaela’s ‘I believe you’ while praying to Him for Adolf’s safety and Carina’s conversation with Agastya at the end of the book ‘There is a power there somewhere … we are just fulfilling our destiny our roles’ makes us close the book with one final question that is Agastya’s too – ‘But which force is controlling us?’ 

As an evolved reader, I can venture a guess. The force that is controlling us is that which is within us – using religion to feed ambition, knowledge and science to forward ideas of world domination. God is yet to make His appearance or His presence felt. Is that the author’s idea too? I’m not sure. 

I recommend this book. For the powerful questions it throws at us to make us think. For the strong plot, albeit expressed in a not-so-enjoyable language. And for the sheer bravery for picking up themes that many would shy away from for all reasons of political correctness. A must-read for those who enjoy thrillers, and a keep for those following geo-strategic politics unfolding around us. Who knows if this very plot sees itself being played out in real life one day.

But I will not say Amen, Amin, Aum and Ogham to that! 

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