Friday, 30 May 2014

Rocketing to Rajouri

I am a very homely kind of person. I like keeping it near. And dear. 

Say, my eggs and bread are accessible in a shop I diagonally cross the park across my lane to get to (henna hair uncle ji even allows credit of macroeconomic proportions). A Mother Dairy (never liked that name) is next door to his shop. So in one jute bag which came free with Kayam Churan I can get my favourite breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one go. The vegetable carts come to my door step and announce their wares in various dialects I understand not but matters not. The beauty parlour is across the main road after walking down only two sets of yellowing buildings (and I always manage a discount there – say, not pay for threading when I have paid a month’s salary for the facial). Even my child’s school is three private-quarters away within my colony (so what if A-street does not get along with E-street. Education is education). And my favourite market (Rajouri, the name is Rajouri Market) is 15 minutes of battery-operated rickshaw ride away. Just 15 minutes! 

You see how my universe rests within a perimeter the diameter of which must be the smallest divisible number never happy to be multiplied and loving to remain single. 

So, when I was asked a big futuristic question as to where I would like to teleport to, I caught myself thinking. My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets but why do the names of the planets seem so strange? I can’t possibly say I want to visit ‘Very’, now can I? The Moon sounds good but will out-shine me. The farthest planets are too far, the nearest hotter than me. Another Galaxy, never, for I can't turn traitor to the memory of this chocolate from childhood. So, no!

I think, if I could cut down on travel time and reach a destination in micro mini seconds, I will pick my Rajouri Market. No hailing battery-bhaiya, no tuk-tukking sitting amidst bells and button-down Akshay Kumar posters and no haggling for that Rs. 2 discount. Just teleporting. (whatever that means!) 

I don’t know why you smile. Perhaps, you think me an idiot to want to go to this Punjabi-like-me market rather than, say, Jupiter to meet Sabu or Marlowe the Moon Man keeping the moon dust falling for Noddy. Let me tell you why. Let me show you three pictures from my last visit to Rajouri Market, Wild West Delhi, only this Sunday just gone, to show you how unique and interesting this place is. 

Picture 1:

Steve Jobs could not have designed this one. Neither could have this apple orchard been grown any better by the genius who did it. The many colours, the net (‘Behenji, pure lace! Not net.’), the overall over-saturated image of this on a human shape with bitten apples on every angle and I swear on butter chicken this could not have been spotted in any other market. Such highly evolved brain synapses which could connect unrelated colours and textures and well, even symbols, with such passion for mixing-matching. Today, I am a proud owner of Apples iSuit, limited edition. (apart from a few cock-tail gowns from an over-flowing place called ‘Bangkok Mart’. Such colours you thought never existed!) 

Now, to figure out which is salwar and which the kameez

Picture 2:

What you say is important but how you say it is equally important. We should communicate with love, and passion too, why not. A toy set, imported from across the highest peaks of the Himalayas and found in 'Luckee Toys hee Toys', reads thus. How sweet, sweet as pure cheeni. I held this in my hand and a rush of inexplicable kindness for my next door neighbour (country, I mean) rose up my belly and into my heart (and then down). How the media buries under reams of source-papers the real relationship that the peoples of one country feel for the other. Why rake up controversies over seas, when all they desire is to be fondled admiringly. My son cannot understand the words, but when he learns to read, one day, I am sure he will start wearing a cap and a tee to proclaim his love back for this country (just like those NYC-returned ABCDs). Now, isn't this love letter on a toy unique to my Rajouri? 

PS – It has been opened and the manual instructions followed properly. 

Picture 3:

(Please stop staring. This is purely for showing you the dress material) 

And the people in Rajouri, so big and so big in heart that accommodating other’s language into their own moulds and styles is never a problem. I am sure if this lady has been shopping in Rajouri she knows the symbols of all things Chinese. They are printed behind toys and clips and candy and phone covers and Godly idols and now, on behinds too! So, in the very act of picking this pretty yellow with a foreign language dezign the woman has travelled miles in the Market of World Peace and donned a symbol of such inexplicable unity in diversity that she can quite be used as Mother World. (If only I could see the face I would have doodled it).

I have ordered a whole thaan of this piece. Some to get stitched, some to gift and some to send over for translation to the Institute of All Things Imported. It might help in understanding the print behind most objects in the market much better! 

Tell me! Do you still think me an idiot to want to go to this market rather than, say, Jupiter to meet Sabu or Marlowe the Moon Man who keeps the magic moon dust falling in Toyland?

Okay! Don’t answer that! 

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Teleport - If you could travel to any location in the universe — where would you travel and why?]

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Book Review – That Autumn in Awadh by Rachna Singh

I could begin this review of ‘That Autumn in Awadh’ with a love quote, perhaps. But Rachna Singh’s semi-autobiographical romance novel does not leave one dreamy-eyed feeling all mushy inside. It did not me. For me, this story is too real to make typical. This story acquires poignancy through the context it was set in, and the life-like realism of characterization.

Somewhere around the year 1996, Samar and Sara find themselves drawn to each other, working hard in the same office but battling harder to resist falling in love. Slowly, they succumb, knowing fully well that a Rajput versus Christian battle will rage soon as their families know. And as expected, it does. The story moves from romance in office to lock-ups and house arrests. From intimate moments stolen clandestinely to unshielded threats to life. The plot hinges between the two poles of young, vibrant, hopeful love on one hand and bitter, coercive communal divides on the other. While the turns in the plot keep you absorbed as does their romance, a feeling of foreboding around these star-crossed lovers refuses to leave your side till the very end. A dose of Rachna’s humour helps balance that out, especially in the workplace scenes.

Most relevant – the communal context

There is a timelessness, sadly, to the context the love story is set in. The context of xenophobic communities working over-time to keep themselves ‘unblemished’ by foreign winds. Doing everything in their power to prevent such social embarrassments as their own blood marrying outside the community brings.  

Nons’ coming for the church-sponsored functions are unacceptable. Sara’s father pronounces a prospective groom for his daughter ‘low caste convert’. She muses ‘The quintessential ‘all God’s children are equal’ did not quite pan out the same way outside the doors of the church’. At Samar’s place, in ‘bhajans that were cacophonous’ sit families ready to join hands against transgressors, holding court, pronouncing judgement and even ready to shed blood, for does not Samar’s uncle feel bold enough to pronounce ‘If he were my son, I would have shot him dead’? You know, as well as I do, how this forms a reality around us still.

Most real – characterization

You know how stories about love spoil us! They make us feel like heroes and heroines in our own love stories, even as they decorate theirs’ in solid shades of valour, loyalty and sacrifice. ‘That Autumn in Awadh’ celebrates these qualities in its protagonists, but without aggrandizing them. In other words, keeping them as human and as real as the readers reading it. Hence, every act of courage by Sara and Samar comes after multiple sessions of timid musing, and every step forward on the rebellious route with a thought spared for the conservative parents. Their misgivings and confidence, both, are beautifully expressed by Rachna. Perhaps, this being her own story in part, played a role in that. 

The minor characters are present only to propel Sara’s and Samar’s story forward, either assisting them in their escapades or adding a delightful note of laughter in a world beset with uncertain tomorrows. The foci always remain Sara and Samar. 

For most part of the first half, Sara and Samar are ‘two solemn heads (doing) some tough talking to two defiant hearts’. Playing I spy with putting a name to their relationship, this ‘something more’ than friendship, remains ‘unspoken, unnamed and unfathomable’.  Between HR meetings and MBA classes, their faux defenses shed gradually, and their relationship develops slowly till the ‘invisible envelope of love surrounding them’ reaches a can’t-live-without-each-other magnitude. 

I liked the individual characterization. I felt happy to see Sara surpass Samar, at multiple points in the story, if not in her conviction then certainly in breaking stereotypes, even though she too was often ‘in no shape to argue’ against meeting suitors her parents arranged for her, a point which her sister brings up later in the story. Samar, on the other hand, dithers more, and again and again, from the point where he declares that he will have to marry a girl his family chooses to still worry about Sara getting a ‘smooth entry into my family’ despite the high drama of cancelled weddings and body guards. Frankly, I wanted to shake him by the shoulders at this point, slightly tired of his continuous musings on family. 

And then I realized, why, Sara and Samar are only a product of their times! A century when the institution of family was important enough to rein in or rethink youthful impulsiveness. A time when it took time to decide the next step, if not to make up your mind. An era when women and men were working independent of their parents but not cut-away from them. When parental assent mattered in its own ways, and so best efforts were made by lovers to convert rebellion into acceptance, even if the parents stood rigid as rocks.

Most enjoyable – Rachna’s humour

Rachna is effortless with her humour, a self-enhancing type of humour consisting witty descriptions made matter-of-factly. Marry that with comments about quirky colleagues or quirkier communities and it becomes a delicious home-made cake – sans frills, or hyperbole. 

At work, Deboprotim Dutta, Head of HR (and funny pronunciations too) is a character who adds much laughter to the reading. A work place where ‘engineers had a way of answering questions correctly, without solving the problem’ but where ‘studious girls … were dressed in stodgy, sensible engineer-like attire, the primary function of which was to conceal any trace of feminine lure’. Where food is like ‘buckskin parantha’ and ‘bullet proof paneer’ and dancing parties see ‘balding senior managers trot up to the relevant missus while adjusting the trouser belt below the canopy of flesh and sweeping them in their arms. The image was macabre’.

A delightfully funny account of the Christian community is the cherry on the cake for me. At Easter lunch ‘the crowds … charged towards the makeshift lunch pandal with the fury of enraged crusaders. Roomali rotis flew like unmanned gliders only to land on plates like manna … the raita quivered on the wobbly wooden tables, maybe saying a silent prayer of thanks since it did not feature high on the list of hungry desires’ for there was chicken biryani in attendance. And getting ready for suitor-seeing meant ‘apply only Charmis cream and dab with Liril powder. Then, using a wet towel, wipe it off, to leave only a subtle trace’. Or where reasons for leaving Church before the holy communion could be ‘clubbed under un-ending sermon or biryani-kebab-cooking-delays’.

The one problem, for me

Rachna says she wrote this semi-autobiographical love story not as a narrator. She wrote it like a third person, observing the turns and twists Samar and Sara go through after stepping out of herself. How far she managed to remain an ‘observer’ to documenting this true love story only she knows. But I notice in the ‘Acknowledgements’, which is obviously her speaking, she adds a “disclaimer” saying (a) She has used actual names of ex-employers to lend authenticity to the narration, but then (b) Ribbing of Christian community was in jest, and neither did she want to offend the Rajputs because ‘it’s these quirky little things about all Indian communities that make us such a vibrant society’. 

While I cannot question her choice of subject to lend authenticity to her story and did enjoy the ribbing, I am disappointed to see the apologia which calls coercive and life-threatening ways of communities ‘quirky’ and adding vibrancy to society. Maybe, since she was writing this as a third person, she need not have kept it so tame? I would have wished a bolder portrayal of how regressive communities can get in suppressing love. While the events are there, since the judgement is missing (even from Sara's mouth), the horror of some situations seems to wane. 

The final word

That Autumn in Awadh’ is a for-the-young and by-the-young story of love across the shadow lines of caste and community. A marriage of fiction and fact to create an interesting read, and a story which will find echo in many hearts torn between love for an ‘outsider’ and allegiance to a family. From the dash of humour to the lovers’ dash in autorickshaws (I cannot get the image of pretty Sara and caring Samar challenging Fate sitting in an auto out of my head), the author keeps you engaged with her easy language and keeping the plot interesting till the very end. The book comes with the quietest of love poetry, but that is what kept it so real and so relevant, for me.

Title: That Autumn in Awadh
Author: Rachna Singh
Publisher: Alchemy

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

Monday, 26 May 2014

Book Review – Pendulum by Sarang Kawade

Life is driven by a single principle – decadence, resembling a still pendulum,’ says Sarang Kawade’s introduction to his book ‘Pendulum’, a collection of 48 stories rendered as poems or short prose passages. 

Decadence – that moral and cultural decline characterized by hedonism, debauchery, corruption, intemperance, immorality and wantonness, is the context this book arises out of. The mood, like the ‘pendulum called life’, oscillates between smiles and sorrows, hope and despair, loneliness and company. The setting is the young, urban world of IT jobs and coffee shops, cellphones and busy hours, empty homes and unrequited love as well as fruit vendors and homelessness, prejudice and even sexual assault. Each story has its own narrator, a voice speaking either like an observer or one deeply involved in documenting, scene-to-scene, his/her surroundings. Which, when you read you realize, are yours and mine too. 

As Sarang moves from one story to the next, the narrative voice changes in tenor from angry and even caustic at times, to plain objective; from despairingly dejected to hopeful and often preachy – all this depending on how involved or distant he feels to a specific story. For someone who likes deconstructing books based on changing narrative voice, this will be fodder for study.  

What remains consistent and helps bring the 48 stories together under ‘Pendulum’ is the author’s thought-process and the technique he uses to translate it into words.

The Thoughts and thought-out Technique

Sarang is 22 and in the software industry. That is all I know. When I asked him for an author introduction, he said he will give none. The artist wanted the art to be received independently, sans any pre-conceived notions that come with social labels. 

That he is only 22 amazed me at various points of time while reading the book, for he has already managed to unravel lessons from his life which typically (perhaps mythically) take years of grey hair to realise. There is ripeness of thought, a looking within and turning to self, an honest acknowledgement of social wrongs, a beautiful acceptance of the importance of relationships over jobs, of love over money, care over success. While the poems and stories remain bold and honest, each comes wrapped in a kind of maturity of thought which makes you believe what you read. The secret wishes of his various narrators (the ‘Burqa Clad Butterfly’ penultimate wish is to ‘ride a bike and let my loose hair fly’) – so simple yet so impossible to achieve, leaves you with a melancholic taste in your mouth.   

The language Sarang uses to deliver his ideas befits the narrators of his stories – young and urban, or old and alone, and lost. Expect no lovely lyricism or similes drawn from bounteous nature. This book was written in dark alleys of fat wallets ridden with futility and frustration, or empty ones clinging on to flashes of hope. So, Sarang speaks to us through the speakers of his stories in a language that those people speak in real life, not just to make himself understood but also to bring in a believability to the stories. In poems where he himself seems to be the speaker, the language becomes more complex than otherwise, but we realize how he too belongs in exactly the world that he is trying to hold a mirror up to in ‘Pendulum’. He speaks standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the different and differing narrators of the 48 stories. 

Apart from the prose passages written such that you wonder if they too are poems of some sort, personification of emotions, analogies with colonies of ants or bubbles, creative titles which read like exam questions with marks in parenthesis, advert jingles, letters from daughters to fathers, coupled with jumbled syntax like ‘Endure I long walks’ are everywhere. As is use of slang words, which, for the first time, I did not cringe on encountering.  

Let me give you my favourites out of this collection.

In a poem satirizing the kind of societies we have built around ourselves, Sarang creates ‘your reasoning town called ‘Brainville’ (somewhat reminiscent of Yeats’s idea of an anti-Christ being born in ‘The Second Coming’) where:

Neurons work as conformists in the
industry to recycle dumped ingenuity
and create a swarm of material desires.
But Hope is the secret vigilante, willing
to even die protecting the Rebel square.
Traditions are enshrined in Stereotype Avenue
(but where)
Hope is not scared.
Hope will soon be blessed with a child
Residents of Rebel Square have a name for the
Child – Belief.

Love Conquers Gadgets Too’ connects existential alienation to the symbolic individualistic ‘I’s’ ‘being used by phone, laptop, tablet’, creating an (i)-me-myself world. An interestingly titled and creatively written ‘I care you. So take love’ begins with a question Care (personified) is asking about Love – ‘I feel jealous of her charm. Why is Love so popular and I am not?’  Care and Love write letters to each other to understand each other, to get married in the end. An idyllic situation but equally ironical when seen reflective of a society working on different principles. 

A brutal poem ‘Rapes, Cuts, Blood and Solace’ is a woman’s account of her many rapes, as nonchalantly as if she was talking about buying vegetables. At 16 – ‘I was raped yet again by a single guy. (Thank God)’ and the ( ) hurt. Raw anger in ‘Oh Thy Anger’ where ‘Be happy, act foolish, disguise fury, sounds so stupid your self-help shit’ speaks an angry voice yearning to break free from social givens. While passages like 'Game of Domestic Violence' stun you into silence, some others like 'Candy Floss Smile', and the final one in the book called ‘I love you father’ (I wonder if this lovely piece is autobiographical) come written straight from the heart, leaving you feeling warm. 

Most stories and poems have U-turns at the end, not a twist to shock or awe, but one to affirm a drop of hope where none seemed to exist a few lines before. Myriad moments of warmth exchanged and good deeds done delivered in such simple language, but never enough to make you forget the deprivation they are set in. 

An oscillating pendulum, but one which likes to remain steeped in sorrow! 

And then, the disappointments

1. While I have admired and enjoyed the thoughts behind the 48 stories and the oscillating sensitivity-brutality with which they have been expressed through the various narrators, not all poems or passages manage to maintain the power of expression consistently. ‘Stay Connected, Stay Insane’, ‘Ram Habib Daler Joseph’ and ‘I’m Sorry’ broke the effect either because the themes were repeated or they bordered on the typical. 

2. There is a self-contradiction in Sarang’s use of a ‘decadence’ (in a negative way) as the penultimate theme for his work. The very hedonism, intemperance and debauchery that characterizes decadence carries the idea of subversion too. Exactly the kind of subversion that Sarang actually celebrates/professes – artistic freedom, anti-establishment, quitting education, gay love, secularism, anti-rituals and prejudice, psychos with a heart, constructive anger. Decadence is not the word the author should have lamented about on the cover. Stagnation, materialism, alienation maybe. This being the only reason why I was wary of comparing some of his poems with Ginsberg’s ‘Beat Poetry’ like 'Howl' for instance – there is similar anger towards wrong, being sung to a rebellious beat, but not achieving the same level of clarity of purpose.

3. I would have liked a list of contents. Would have given some organization to the book. I am quite a Capricorn woman if you know what I mean!

Pendulum’ remains Sarang Kawade’s attempt to speak through men and women surviving different spheres and stages of life. The poetry is devoid of any ostentatious trappings and the short prose is simple and straight-forward, because he is letting his characters speak directly to you. Asking you to listen, understand and look around and within too. There is judgement in Sarang’s voice, against facets of society he doesn’t agree with and support for those suffering its idiosyncrasies. There is also a wish in Sarang’s heart, of personal freedom from all that binds artistic thought. This book, through its honesty and execution, succeeds in achieving this. 

I conclude with a few lines of a poem I have been re-reading ever since, ‘If I’m Weird, then who’s Normal?’ 

They call me weird, a social outlaw to be precise,
I take my stand; they’re the prisoners, the majority.

They say doubt wraps me, obscure is my speech,
I see clarity of thoughts erupting, bursting within me.

Their fundamental reaction is to concur, they usually comply,
I question back, I can’t walk around holding people’s beliefs.

They bully the fragile ones, beat them up to laud their insecurity,
I was beaten too but never defeated, they’re cowards, not me.

Title: Pendulum
Author: Sarang Kawade
Publisher: Partridge – A Penguin Random House Company

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

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Pout-detector Selfie-taker

Pout – verb - push one's lips or one's bottom lip forward as an expression of petulant annoyance or in order to make oneself look sexually attractive.

Pouty - adjective, I made.

My parents never understood my pouty behaviour since I was three. I think they got me all wrong. All along!

In class five I would pout at the head-taller guy from next door who got us home-made pickle instead of my favourite candy and they got the pout all wrong. I would go to the club and pout at one uncle’s drummer son, class seven, playing a lifeless tune and they misunderstood my pouty lips. Again and again, and countless number of tender-aged times. Finally, packed me off to a convent, where the hems of skirts met the elastic of socks and skin was a bad four letter word, after ‘pout’ that is. Oh, I didn’t stop pouting! In an all girls’ nunnery convent there are more reasons for a 15 year old to pout than God will ever know or Heavens get to see. 

What a bad childhood.

But all that seems to be from a Stone Age past. Today, much like the Blue Stocking Movement of yore, the lips have found their own revolution. Say, the Red Lipstick Movement. It has spread like jelly set wrong, or not set at all. The camera in the phone holds the mirror up to your soul lens up to your mole, and all you have to do is click. Save Share that DIY Selfie face for viral eternity, often making such luscious expressions even the camera battery gets wet dreams. So, just like the British suspected trouble the moment two men collected to pee and discuss politics on the road-side, so you can expect a pouty selfie soon as three giggly girly lips come together, posing in front of a phone camera I mean. But all this you know already, if you too, like me, live on FB (activation-deactivation-‘where is he?'-grand comeback included!)

Lets talk technologi technologee technology, not really my forte but I do know the green wire stands for peace on Earth and black one to remind me I’m a live wire even with my black dress on. Hear on! 

Young India is not just collared and wired and earning fat bucks (and voting and posting pictures!). The youth of today is always in the fifth gear. The B/W picture of Contentment (man sitting on an arm chair in his verandah in a baniyan, scratching arm pits and hearing flies flutter) no longer pleases them. They compete till kingdom comes, hard! Cutting throats for not just plum postings, corner offices and cushy cars but even to declare to the world’s winds in Alia Bhatt’s voice that ‘I love my baby lips muah muah’ and that I am always ‘Lakme selfie ready!’ Posters for ready reference below.

Therefore, due to such competition the selfie situation is quite tensed, and all cameras and phone batteries are feeling the heat, listening to ‘lens lens in my phone, who’s the pouty-est on the globe’ and God forbid if the answer is as unsatisfactory as the pseudo-elevation of a push-up whose straps have lost elasticity. God forbid, but then, it always is. 

In such days where pouts are vying to occupy selfie space, necks sprained into kamasutric positions to make nose hair hide itself, eyes going smoky and doe-like and windows to a thirsty soul, we need our two hands free to come to our self-service. (Oh not that way, no! You get me wrong!) No longer should we need to finger the camera button. So, I speak to software developers to create what we can call Pout-Detector Hands-free Long-lasting Selfie-Taker (dictionaries can revise their meanings of ‘selfie’!) Much like a smile-detector, but who is smiling? So, the moment the lips start moving towards your own image in the phone camera, the phone takes a picture. It is the highest form of self-love, the aspiration to kiss your own image (and God won't mind for man was created in His image) and look good doing it too. This deserves the biggest brains ever born to work on it. 

And when this software is invented and installed, what larks! 

Here is my phone resting between my floss and my tooth-brush, and there it detects my pout and clicks me in multiple poses – hands in just washed hair, hands in hair combed front, hands in hair combed back, hands cupping the cheeks, the chin, the … you get the point! Or when you are cooking pao bhaji, trying to get yourself in the frame with mashed potatoes drowning peas all bubbling in the pan, you place the phone on the steel utensil rack, pouting with a buttery intensity. It will love your bebbe lips, and hands – holding ladle, holding the two handles of the kadhai, closing eyes and smelling aroma. Clickety click it will go, detecting the pout on its own. 

But then, what about Equality, our favourite idea? 

I demand equal representation of all kinds of pouts in the pout-detector software. Equal representation. (Remember my childhood I just shared above?) Pouts happen automatically too and so many are asexual in nature. Like when watching TV without specs you may pout. Or when constipated (try!). Or when Arnab Goswami is being his real age, or even AAP? Then the pout we make when we go ‘tch tch’, or the exhaling one when in pain while getting a tattoo. How about the one which delivers lungular smoke up into the clear skies and even the one which we make to remove hair strands from our chin with plucker? The phone should be able to detect and preserve all kinds of pouts - sexy as well as asexy. No sexy-ist bias please.

Okay, I am suddenly all alive with my own brainchild.

I am sending this article to Rajiv “butter skin” Makhni of the cleft chin gadget guru fame. He will understand what I mean. Only yesterday I read this piece by him, recommending best phones for selfie taking. In him I will find a nodding head when he reads this. Perhaps, he will call divert me to the right people who will, like me, see that the next big thing needs to be Pout-Detector Hands-free Long-lasting Selfie-Taker (in whichever order their lips please!)


[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - The next big thing - What will the next must-have technological innovation be? Jetpacks? Hoverboards? Wind-powered calculators?]

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Circle of Life

She had no idea what she was doing on the yellow bench, staring at the patterns the union of rust and old paint made on it. She had been married in the biggest house around this park, but she had never been here. Office and work and parties and shopping and spa and movies and office and work. That busy thing we call Life. To think that for 10 years she parked her Honda Accord right behind the stone wall this rickety bench rested upon. And on which she rested today. Alone. With some papers by her side. With her hand holding them down on the bench. What was she doing here? Shouldn’t I be in office? Damn, it’s 3:00 pm and Linux Tech comes calling in 30 minutes for handing over Eastern Region’s project to me and ... and this is what I have been waiting for, working for all my …

The wheels of the pram screeched on the jogger’s path every time it turned around the oval’s bends. They did now too, just at the yellow bench. The baby giggled, the dribble running down the chin doubled, as did the loud delight at the turns. The mother did not seem to notice. She pushed the pram along, looking straight at a point only she could see. A face devoid of expressions, but thoughts sprinting into each other at full speed. Somewhere else. Certainly not here, where the two pig-tails on the pram were dancing with glee. The baby let her mother be, as if she understood. But who can ... can anyone understand, help? This ... guilt, this feeling of nothingness. Just burps and nappies and sleepless nights. This worry I am too tired to admit as real ... bone fatigued. These chapters I had not signed up for my entire …  

She straightened up on her bench at the noise, where wheels met pavement to turn a different direction. The grinning jingling monkey hanging on the pram pulled her out from the abyss of her thoughts. Her Linux meeting was tucked in a drawer. She noticed then, the pram, the baby, the mother. And then she stared with an expression her face had never before seen. The papers felt the pressure ease, but only slightly. What a darling baby! Oh look at that hair those curls the twinkle in her eyes. How happy she is. How old must she be? A few months, maybe a year? I love how she claps her hands when the pram turns ... as if she is flying. They are called bundles of joy ... Oh! What a lucky mother … and her nails dug into the bench. Green with jealousy. Now yellow with old paint. She looked away at a barren tree. The papers still struggling to breathe under all that weight.

She swerved the pram with one hand and adjusted her dupatta. Took a long breath. Her mother used to say it helps whenever you feel cornered by customs or people even. Breathe, and keep that scream from coming. Keep it in. Will I ever wear my ghunghroos and dance ... Oh! I must be mad. God’s gift of a child in my pram and such ungrateful thoughts. Evil ... Her swollen feet seemed to agree with the noises in her head. Sent a shot of pain rocketing up into her thoughts, where it remained. Pulsating. Where it would remain for every waking hour of her being it seemed. What would I do to just feel free! Lie down on this grass with not a lullaby to breathe or story to tell. No night becoming day becoming night. Just dance ... hear applause. No responsibility, none depending on me. Like ... like that woman on the bench. Sitting free without a care in the world enjoying the sun the calm. If only in her place I could be … and it sprung within her. Jealousy. She averted her gaze skywards at the lonely cloud drifting aimlessly. The hand clutched the pram tighter. It picked up speed.

And then the wind blew. As if it was eavesdropping. Peeping inside their minds. Colluding with an unseen pattern, the wind blew strong, then stronger.

The baby’s joy knew no bounds. It soared like a polythene on a string, as did her joyful shouts all around. In the meantime, one woman’s dupatta with stains of milk and baby oil protested and was set free, even as the hands tried holding on to it. The other’s papers blew away with the wind, no longer wanting to be clutched, leaving the yellow bench behind. There was confusion in the air. Hair and papers and clothes and pig tails all going wild. Together. The wind kept blowing as if it had a purpose to. And then it slowed down, just a bit. The baby’s mother helped collect the papers spread across the lawn. The woman on the bench unravelled the soiled dupatta from her legs. They walked up to each other to hand over what was not their own. And then to sense what was theirs, together.

The tears. 

They had both been crying. One because she had a child and the other because she perhaps never could. That’s what the papers said, those medical reports. She had just found out and had driven home. Straight. To this bench where she had never been before. 

The wind was gone. Left a quiet behind, intentionally. Also left behind a lawn peppered with leaves. Mostly dry and wilting but some fresh and green too. Like hope, no not jealousy! Or say, like finding a friend to share a yellow bench with, no matter how rickety the bench or how unknown the friend.

To share a circle of life, and understand the patterns drawn within it too. 

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Green-eyed – Tell us about the last time you were really, truly jealous of someone. Did you act on it? Did it hurt your relationship?]

P for pearl, for one

There were 10 huge tables in the mess, each seating 10 girls at a time. But there were 300 girls in this red brick hostel built around a central lush-green quadrangle. Which meant, different years ate in batches. Junior most first and senior most last. In between, the second year bachelor’s students came to finish their meals. Sandwiched, neither here nor there. Between a bell announcing ‘your turn’ and one which said ‘your time is gone’. For food. For desire for food. For more.

She always lingered longer than she needed to, that girl from Year 2. The girl with spectacles. Bony thin and fair as snow, with tufts of hair falling in gay abandon over her forehead. Refusing to follow the convention of the rest of her head. Almost as if in collusion with her mind, to hide those eyes. Eyes which intentionally sat longer in the mess. Way beyond the second bell. Way beyond the seniors walking in. Me, walking in to take my place. To eat. To see her stare.

Every meal she could she would watch me.

Playing with her food making it last longer. By design. I could never tell for sure exactly when she was looking at me. You see, the spectacles never made me see her eyes. Such reflections from surrounding light they shone with. Sometimes, I saw a shade of light brown over them. Where eye met eye. Naked. Hers and mine. As if conversing. A strange feeling of discomfort shot to my head, full of ‘why’s. Some words her eyes quietly saying in my ears, but I failed to hear them across those tables. Did not understand. Did not want to, maybe?

You know how you and your companions find designated places to sit, when you have to sit in them for days at a stretch. Like in a big hall with 100 chairs, 6 thick pillars and windows on two sides. We had found ours. A pattern to follow and sit by. But she by free will. Me? Just following my crowd, my friends. Diagonally opposite from that same pillar, with a picture of a god on it, playfully looking at us as we ate across two tables. Looking down at us, that picture. Almost as if reprimanding her for the thoughts in her head. Enjoying the confusion in mine. And in this communication, intruding. That intrusive god. Without shame.    

And just like pearls fallen from a broken string on to the floor, however lost, do find ways to show that slightest of glint – no matter how dark the corner or how unnoticed - so did she. On movie nights in the common room sitting somewhere around me. Till I could see. Saw. Her looking, again. Not watching the movie but me. In the queue for hostel library books or sick room or tuck shop and such coincidences which seemed not chance. Always in the quietest of corners. Till I would almost make up my mind to go speak with her and ask her what is the meaning of this and why have you been staring at me and it makes me uncomfortable and what have I done to deserve this unease? Till I would almost make up my mind and stop at that ‘almost’, always. Never talking to her asking her. The mind never made up enough. And months would go by.

I never did share with another friend, my confusion about P’s secret gaze, on me. It seemed her heart would break. Making this public. And trivial. Almost guilt-ridden I would sit whenever I was at the precipice of spilling the beans to a friend. Seeking answers was only right, yes, but shaming her in some sense. So my own thoughts I calmed alone, floating like cumulus clouds when in the confines of my private space. What is this that never seems to abate and am I encouraging something through my ways my silence my stares, right back at those spectacles hidden in the hair, or those eyes? Never saying this aloud. As if this was something significant. Hah! As if it was! But, what if it was? To P?  

It remained unspoken. This story. I did not silence her presence, ever. It was she who spoke when it was time for my absence. A little card slipped under my room’s door, on my last night at this hostel of 300. It said ‘I will remember you’. Not more not less. Spoken at last. Signed. The full name there. Like in parting she found courage to write it down. And so I did find too, my share of courage. When I admitted to myself for the first time - I wish we had spoken.

Spoken to understand what all that meant. To her. For me. Why?

Today I sit thinking, this must have meant something to her. And knowing well it could never have meant the same to me.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Unconventional Love - Over the weekend, we explored different ways to love. Today, tell us about the most unconventional love in your life. This is a true story. The narrator is me.]

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Book Review – Sita’s Curse by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu

In India, we barely talk about sex. And if we don’t talk about it that freely, writing about it remains many steps further down the road of progressive thought sans hypocrisy. So, when a woman writer creates erotica and uses Sita in its title, in this act itself is a battle won, and one in which we all should triumph. Perhaps, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu created ‘Sita’s Curse’ for this reason – seeking to stimulate a new discourse on female sexuality, in a land which treats ‘The Kamasutra’ like another’s child. Still. 

‘Sita’s Curse’ is the story of Meera Patel, a village girl married to Mohan, a man living with his mother and brother’s family in the dingy confines of ‘Saali Mumbai’. Meera’s childhood is about her bond with her brother, Kartik, and Meera’s adult life ‘a collision of callous cravings’ - her urgent need for love, respect, acceptance and sexual fulfilment. Trudging through a dying marriage and dead domesticity, she finds succor only in her flights of fantasy behind locked doors, finding calm ‘somewhere on the cusp between dreams and desires’. Until, as the cover says, ‘one cataclysmic day in Mumbai, when she finally breaks free …

Yes, there is a lot of sex in this book. But for me, the book went beyond erotica to claim its place in the shelf of feminist literature coming from India. 

Sex – how used

Erotica is all about vividness of expression. Where words replay scenes before the readers’ eyes – in order to titillate through the realism. It requires language that freely succumbs to the writer’s fancy, and a writer with an imagination sans social bounds. ‘Sita’s Curse’ is full of sex and love making – some unpleasant, but mostly pleasant. However, notice not just how visually sex has been described but how it has been used by Sreemoyee - to expose socio-religious hypocrisy and question the institution of marriage, by giving a feminist’s voice to Meera, the woman seeking ‘flying without the fear of falling’, a personal freedom. 

Hence, sexual act acquires myriad meanings. Meera, in her suffocating domesticity, is seen ‘pleasuring myself to feel a sense of inner calm.’ Watching Guruji beg for more makes her feel like a ‘Goddess … the power I seemed to demonstrate over a man thousands worshipped.’ She enjoys Mohan angst-ridden ‘taking my time to touch him…back…in the way I calculated’. Desire for calm or to feel free, for power and even revenge. All this, as she longs for someone to really see ‘this Meera … the person … this person I am now.’ Waiting to be acknowledged as a woman of desires. 

Making love, thus, becomes self-exploratory as well as a means to achieving an identity, as are the various relationships she enters in her life. 

Relationships – how developed

Meera journeys ahead in her quest for realization through the four main men in her life. With each she discovers or sheds a part of herself she could not otherwise. 

Kartik and Meera’s ‘love was rare’. Emotional, physical, unconventional. A dependence the twins acquired even though only one carried it on into the book, for apart from their mother the author herself knew it belonged to a ‘blue … no black no white’ world. Not in our society. It remains the most fulfilling relationship Meera ever had. Amarkant Maharaj, a man of God, helps Meera get in touch with her desires, her free will to break free but to become his salvation, his Sita. He opens up her mind to ‘unholy’ possibilities. Up until Meera finds a voice to ask him who he is to tell her ‘Who must I be?’ Learning to choose, en route her awakening, through Guruji.

And then Meera’s relationship with Mohan, her husband, ‘Strangers in every way confined to age old customs and the suffocation induced by small talk’ because we prepare girls for marriage but tell them nothing about love. The inadequate Mohan sees her as ‘so damn needy all the time’ as Meera struggles to live the lies marriages in India are often sustained on. Eventually attempts breaking free from getting her identity dissolved completely. Finally, confronting him for his bestiality for by then there was ‘so little left of us, to salvage or surrender’.

Surrender she does. To Yosuf. The stranger boy who tells her that to be loved is ‘scary shit … it means you want to be saved’ whereas ‘being desired is like drowning…you have to let go…of the life you had’.  A relationship of a few hours, but one which gives more perspective to her mind than any other. And a direction to his, for Yosuf’s life too, exactly like Meera’s ‘is a lie … and that is the only truth.’ Yosuf. Almost like a male version of Sita, not Ram, in a human body. 

Which gets me to the politics of the body.

Meera - the body, the feminism 

Meera’s mother tells her how our bodies are ‘our only source of power. You must always stay this way … supple, strong, sensuous.’ Of female sexuality, and its incipient power. Of wanting more as time goes by. Desiring. Indeed, Meera’s body remains her ‘greatest ally’, a means to waking up her consciousness. I was reminded of Luce Irigaray’s thoughts when I read this conversation between Meera and her mother. I quote from ‘Speculum of the Other Woman’:

At times forces (like Meera) rise up and threaten to lay waste the community. Refusing to be that unconscious ground that nourishes nature, womanhood would then demand the right to pleasure, to jouissance … thus betraying her universal destiny. What is more, she would pervert the propriety of the State by making fun of the adult male subjecting him to derision …
Woman is neither open nor closed. She is indefinite, in-finite…this incompleteness in her form, her morphology, allows her continually to become something else … No metaphor completes her…perhaps this is what is meant by her insatiable thirst for satisfaction. No one single thing … can complete the development of a woman’s desire.

You will realize reflections of these thoughts in the woman that is Meera – who asks Mohan – ‘What is the difference between being a wife, a whore, and a woman, Mohan? What … what if being a woman is just enough? Just, just once?

A body seeking pleasure beyond set boundaries only to fulfil her own desires. Quite unlike the Sita we know from our mythology, isn’t it? 

So then, what explains the title of the book?

Why ‘Sita’s Curse’?

The Prologue says ‘Ram! Ram!’ It sees Meera pleasuring herself, even as the outside world frantically knocks at her door to impinge on her space. Meera stays, ‘rewarded by the rites of passage … folding her legs like Goddess Lakshmi’. Thus begins Sreemoyee’s brazen juxtaposition of God and ungodly, even in her naming of characters, actually. 

Meera is always made to play the role of Sita in school. She sits decked up and Sreemoyee uses words like ‘piercing, fake, dull, weighed and crowding’ describing her state of mind in that state of over-dress. A heroine in a story that is not even her own. Lost among all the social din. Lost exactly like the real point behind mythological Sita’s ‘agnipareeksha’. A point the author makes Meera raise at a religious gathering, much later – ‘What if Sita hadn’t been kidnapped … what if Lord Ram and she went on to live a simple life … maybe in a city like ours, dwelling … like most of us do. Would the Ramayana still be this relevant … would it stand for anything, anything at all?’ 

The question is ignored, but the reader realizes that through Meera we are being made to re-look at Sita ‘Not the Goddess. The woman. The wife. If she were trapped in a stale, lifeless marriage… tarnished because she was wanted by someone else. For a temptation that wasn’t even hers.

Questions abound. 

Is Meera then symbolic of Sita? And is her treatment by the author at the end of the book a submission, an acceptance of this ‘curse’ on women like Meera? Do we see the end as a defeat, or a way to preserve a Meera in a society not yet ripe for women like her?

Is this then an Indian version of George Eliot’s novel ‘Mill on the Floss’, written so many years back? Do the stories converge? The story of Maggie and her ‘unwomanly boldness and unbridled passions’. Of her extreme love for her brother, Tom. The story of women torn by emotional conflicts. The story of societies that refuse to grow up, of edicts they use to prepare, marry off, judge human worth. Of Stephens and Yosuf’s and loves which threaten the calm waters set by religion. And of final deluges – of floods and waters and torrential rains. Of a sudden washing away of dreams and desires even though ‘in their death they were not divided’. Questions that came to my mind, and may to yours too.   

Ifs and buts

No book is perfect. ‘Sita’s Curse’ has its shortcomings too, even if few and far between. Instances where Meera’s desires border on desperate, considering the dire situation surrounding her. The sudden disappearance of Chotu from the story. A western dance school in their Byculla lane. Guruji’s televised interview coming at a point to spoil the enigmatic character that had been built. Yosuf’s online avatar so unlike his real person. And the series of coincidences in a big city like Mumbai which, though goosebumpy and significant to the culmination of the plot, remain too much of coincidences. 

The final word

Sita’s Curse’ must be read. Savoured, actually. It is a most powerful piece of fiction which merges into the reality of life so seamlessly, so sadly. The closets are full to the brim with sex whispers flowing with desire and they all need to be turned into loud voices – men’s or women’s – occupying the public domain sans discomfort. Going beyond erotica into a world where the female voice needs to be heard outside the bedroom, because there is a story behind every desire. As also a dream, ‘of love and loss, kisses and kites…dream of erotica and erections, of rivers and rescues…dream of silence and surrender, of marriage and masturbation, dream of butterflies and breasts, of pleasure and pain..’ in every woman. Where even nature colludes, expressed through Sreemoyee’s recurrent imagery – the harsh sun or full moon nights, the teasing rain or catastrophic deluges – to write the language of desire.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

For all my bros: G-spot in(Scent)ives

Myself Bunty. Only day before yesterday, I shaved off my wiry chest hair. I was told waxing it will be like 237 butter knives cutting up my chest. Together. So I did not have the guts to enter Hero Hira Lal Saloon for Menz. Shaving was not as Presto as those razor people make you believe so it took time, and my mother almost broke the bathroom door down banging on it. But not her fault. She wanted eggs from the market for a breakfast of anda bhurji. (She makes it very nicely. In ghee. Proper Punjabi. But let me get to the point.)

I needed a soft smooth chest to go with my image personality image which has developed manifold recently. More development my personality has seen than what developed countries saw in the past 3 years. Combined. So, I broke away all top buttons of all my shiny shirts for a clear view. (Mummy insists on sewing them back, but their popping is no coincidence). Today, I confidently say that I am a complete man of substances. Gelled hair with spikes, jeans with thunder marks on thighs and bullet tacks belt with pointed boots, one chain in neck one on wrist, a tattoo of skull and bones on biceps and finally, a shaved chest. Totally tip top macho with face shined up!

You see, I have become quite a heart throb wherever I go. When I walk past women, any age or stage, they go into orgasmic convulsions. They take deep breaths a couple of times, then start panting with heads slightly tilted backwards, eyes closed, a sudden gust of wind playing I spy with their hair and when the nasal ecstasy ends, they start seeking me with unmatched desperation. Like bees to honey, or flies to motichoor laddoos in my favourite Roshan Sweat Shop.

The first time it happened, I ran home scared, thinking those women were fainting on smelling my socks in the Metro and then coming to beat me up. But the next day itself, I got promoted to Mr. Dewd in my friend circle, with all kinds of mythical stories getting attached to any and all appendages of mine, however unrelated to the nose.  And however unused.

And then it struck me, like a pebble another pebble in a game of pithoo that this was thanks to a manipulative genius of mine. I made an invention. It’s my 20-something life’s most significant secret, so I’m going to tell you in hushed whispers.

I have invented a magical potion to spray all over my body. Yes.

Here’s the story …

One day, a few weeks back, in between enjoying mummy’s favourite soaps and dum aalo I saw all these adverts on TV showing how a single application of a deodorant leads to women falling head over heels, literally, for the guy who used them, even if the guy is still in his tadpole-using-calamine-on-pimples stage. Taking off saris, opening wet hair and all, jumping through windows or even down from high buildings. Only and only because of the guy’s deodorant which tickled their G-spot located deep up inside their noses.

Then, just after the night-long jagran mummy loves to organize was over, an idea descended into my head from the Godly clouds above. I thought to myself, if one deodorant has the power to make women go so crazy, what will happen if I mixed two up? Or even three? So what did I do? I bought Axe and Denver and Wild Horse from my left over Rakhi money. I collected them (mostly gas!) into a coffee shaker till the cans were empty, then did shake-shake to them to the tune of ‘Ketchup Song’. No lyrics needed. Then, I transferred the solution into an empty cologne bottle, an original Huge Bose from Palika. It shone like good whisky. I swear.

And the effects of using just a drop of it? Priceless! Way beyond what you can ever imagine even. And no, it’s not just about women any more.

Hear this!

As soon as Chaubey uncle handed me the eggs, I felt a sudden shiver in the packet which held them. I looked around Tilak Nagar, West Delhi, thinking it must be an earthquake. Or a tsunami. No one else seemed to have noticed. It was the eggs, belly dancing making hoopla rings all 6 of them. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stood back and watched. They came near my chest. I moved back more. They neared. And then, all cracked open instantly on smelling my sexy smell. The chicks, it seems, just couldn’t control themselves. (Mummy was very angry that day, screaming something about 5 bucks an egg and inflation and breakfast and something something.) But me? I was super happy. I just realized how successful my experiment of mixing those deodorants had been. Finally, I drove cutie pie chicks crazy!

Another one comes to mind. It was my 21st happy birthday so I wore my favourite white button down with buttons down to meet some friends for mall-ing around. I reached before anyone else so excited I was. So I thought I will go to the men’s room, wet my gelled hair a bit. Make the spikes afresh. Maybe do susu also. And you know what happened? I was walking to the men’s loo, swinging my hips like a happy birthday boy’s when I hear a strange tap tap sound behind me. No, it wasn’t my heels. I looked back, with my usual style. The board of the ladies loo, ‘She’ with a tiny hourglass female figure, had come off the door as I passed it. It was following me, hungry to be in my arms. The aisle was empty and I rubbed my eyes, for this time I couldn’t believe my own magnetism which was attracting that brass ‘She’. And suddenly, it stuck to me. Somewhere around my belly button. Imagine! A board which only read ‘she’. Not even a real her. What have I invented, man!

Of course, tender aged minds could be reading this so I cannot tell you the effects on real women, of just a whiff of my experiment. But I will end with a message for all boys. Just remember, bros. You don’t need the face or the brains, you don’t need money or cars. Why, you could be toads (those irreversible variety) with an extra dose of warts for all it matters. As long as you smell like a whole pack of agarbatti and 2 types of Odonil combined. Women will simply kiss the ground your incensed armpits walked over. Such power lies in my tiny bottle. Make yours, today!

But shh. It’s a secret between us and the bottle I have named ‘Poten-she’.

By the way, I’m planning to drink it up next! Oh G, sounds exciting already, mummy swear!

[The prompt for today was - Evasive Action - What’s the most significant secret you’ve ever kept? Did the truth ever come out?]

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Book Review – Business Doctors by Sameer Kamat

The cover of Sameer Kamat’s novel, ‘Business Doctors’ looks good. The perfect knot of tie below a handsome jawline. A helicopter in the background, and a mean machine held right behind the title of the book, written in the colour of blood. They say don’t judge a book by its cover. I agree. But if ever we were to talk of one which portrayed what lay inside to the t(ie), I will remember this one. Of course, I realized it only after I read the book. What did I find inside?

Business Doctors’ is the story of Ivy League educated management consultant, Michael Schneider, who gets hired by a mafia boss with an ‘affinity to violence’, Stephen Woody. Why? Woody’s extensive family business - spanning drugs, gambling and porn – seems to be breathing its last. Money’s not coming in and more than his employed henchmen’s capabilities are under question. This ‘underworld don’s show wife’, Angie, who is otherwise supposed to remain an hour-glass trophy, suggests he needs professional help. Just like a tooth ache needs a dentist, a jail suit a lawyer, problems in business need ‘business doctors … called management consultants’. Schneider takes on the challenge to re-launch the underworld organization into the highly-evolved world of crime, least knowing what awaits him at the end of this dangerous tunnel.

Taking the board room to the ‘Dungeon’ 

… where the thumb rule was to dress one degree higher … the communication usually subtle – the glint of light shining against gold cufflinks and nibs conveys the message’.

The premise on which the book is created is novel – an age-old system of unorganised business married to one of presentations and flow-charts, recruitment and induction, value-stream mapping and out-of-the-box thinking. Sameer has to have studied well (within the confines of his own cabin at work I’m guessing) both kinds to manage this smooth and interesting fusion – The Storming – Forming – Norming - Performing of it all. 

The story is delivered well. It has surprises lurching in dark alleys and well-planned prison breaks, much like the action-packed chapter one, with ‘reflex taking over reason’. Goosebumpy thrill is not something I felt, but suspense I smelled. Sameer has used something which I loosely call “Scene Silencing” in some significant places – like building a thread to a point of high interest and then just suddenly leaving it dangling, making the wondering readers feel compelled to turn the pages. Later, the incomplete thread that was built with a bang gets tied up so matter-of-factly, you wonder if Sameer was trying to test if we were paying attention. I found that technique smartly used! 

There is a lot of management jargon used but without making the book boring or difficult to comprehend, especially for readers like me who are still unsure of what MBA stands for. The language is conversational and at no point does it seem to slow the movement of the plot. In fact, for the most part of the book, it helps maintain a speed of reading matching the pace of the plot. No extra descriptions, no time wasted on the unimportant. Just sticking to the business at hand – guns and roses. By roses I mean humour strewn in surprising corners.

And as we hop from gambling in Vegas to a seedy locale for a peep (not show) into the world of pornography, Sameer dots the narration with enough witty ones to not make us cringe at the blood (however little) or not feel sleepy discussing ‘organisation restructuring’. We hear Woody presiding the Dungeon with his men, drumming his gold-laden fingers ‘impatiently on the table. The resulting tapping sound achieved the same effect as the usage of a minor scale in a musical piece – to build tension and an air of suspense … so effective … that it might have been worthwhile for Woody to consider music composition as an alternative career option, it the proportions of brain and braun were more balanced’. How management consultants looked groomed, intelligent and mildly aggressive but ‘the closest they came to being wired was their possession of iPhones’ and instantly became ‘role models for his non-existent offspring' when they used ‘De-li-ve-ra-ble’ before Joe, a conman. The same Joe whose ‘face automatically went into power-saver mode after a pre-defined period of inactivity.’ And Blizzard, the 90 year old lady hacker who says ‘just assume I was a young, nerdy kid who had a sex change – and excessive smoking caused me to age rapidly.’ And each character, no matter how minor, gets his share of wise ones to mouth. 

Which brings me to the characterisation. Clearly, Sameer Kamat intended Michael Schneider to be the super-hero of this novel, ‘not worried about survival … but concerned about thriving’. A Don Quixote with his Sancho Panza, Martin, having all the answers and making a perfect team. But I did not fall in love with his charming intelligence. Neither was the portrayal of the female characters, bordering on typical, anything to write home about. I did fall in love with Sameer’s minor characters, mostly conmen and ‘hardened criminals’, each given a personality of his/her own, a language to match it, fears to do with their pasts and dreams for the future. Attributes, external or otherwise, making each name stand for a character who we can easily draw in our minds. Here too, sticking to the significant and keeping the unnecessary out helped! 

What didn’t keep me ‘trigger happy’

Let me put it in points, for the author:

1. The text of the book has no paragraph breaks. The only break-points are when chapters end and begin. If this was a structural experiment to help keep the book racy, I am not sure if it was successful. At best, the charging story did not need it. It only showed through like a printer’s error spread all over the book, making the reading slightly tedious.

2. Often, Woody’s men handling his various businesses come across as too dumb (or is Schneider created as super-smart?) If they indeed were all tattoos and muscles and no brains, how did Woody’s business run even after his father’s death, no matter how unsuccessfully?

3. Martin, who was for the most part Schneider’s cerebral-compliment, suddenly vanishes, never to return. I quite enjoyed them as a team. Together. Did Sameer get too busy with Michael’s grandeur to have missed making Martin reappear, at all?

4. In the ‘glorified prison’ setting (I say no more or I spoil) the pace of the book slows down such that management jargon exceeds action to an extent of making this chapter unnecessarily slow. That too, at a point where the book was chugging along like a happy train on the tracks. Also, to see those conmen suddenly behaving like school-children took away from the machismo the book was hinging around. 

I wait for a day when a book about the underworld will be based in India. Do we know so little about our own mafia or do we know more about the one working on foreign shores, thanks to Hollywood’s generous dose of films about their underworld? I don’t know! In the meantime, as Schneider says, ‘if you squint your eyes and check out the Hollywood sign, it reads Hell Good’, and that Hollywood has been in showing us their underworld through cinema, just like this book has been through the written word. 

Business Doctors’ is an entertaining novel. Good plot-work in easy-to-read language, scenes of action well done, characters you can picturise and most importantly intelligent superimposition of management theories on the ways of the underworld. Interestingly, both worlds are painted in the same shade of grey, erasing the given lines of right and wrong, legal and criminal. Let the last word be my favourite quote from Sameer Kamat’s book, which Angie says to Schneider:

You think what we are doing is wrong. You think you’d be completely safe if you go back to your earlier world (of consulting in corner offices). Stop kidding yourself, Schneider. Look around you. Your role models keep falling by the wayside. Most of the big-name consultants, those that you used to admire as super-heroes when you would have been at business school, are in jail. After a point in time, for the ambitious ones, it doesn’t matter where you are. It comes down to money and power. Everyone is breaking rules ... at WFB we do pretty much the same thing. In our quest for money and power, we just break a few more rules. In the business world, there is no gray. Either you are black, or you are white-washed. With us, you get to choose the shade of grey that you like the most.

Something tells me this here is Sameer Kamat speaking, standing in Angie's shoes, of course. For after all, he has his own real world job to keep. Doesn't he? 

Title: Business Doctors
Author: Sameer Kamat is the founder of MBA Crystal BallCareerizma, and Booksoarus
Publisher: Booksoarus

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

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Book Review – Tall Man Small Shadow by Vipin Behari Goyal

When the author of ‘Tall Man Small Shadow’, Vipin Behari Goyal, approached me for a review, he asked me to pick any book from the ones he had written. I picked this, his debut novel in English, and primarily because the introduction promised it was based on existentialism, that being my favourite theory ever since I studied it – to explain or to explain away my life’s happenings. Or my mind’s.  

The book centres on Anupam, the narrator, who enjoys his moments of solitude under a jacaranda tree, coining existentialist philosophies from mundane things that happen to him. All other characters – his ailing wife Sulekha, marriageable daughter Aalya, her Literature professor Seema, a single neighbour Salil – form a part of a story the opining narrator of which remains Anupam. In this short tale, we see a failed attempt at suicide, a secret love affair and a lesbian relationship, IVF, a marriage, an untimely accident and after a series of chance events an actual “divine” coincidence. Only later is revealed the invisible hand which was manipulating the story forward, making us re-examine past events from this character’s point of view. An interesting twist and turning around a philosophical premise. 

First, the good bit.

I liked sitting with Anupam on his favourite bench, seeing him marry the everyday with high philosophy. His questions addressed to himself vary from interesting to intense. An injured worm falls on his forehead from the tree above and he muses on the purpose of the worm’s life, one which escaped the bird’s beak only to fall into the hands of another who wonders what to do with it and ‘what right do I have to stand between a predator and its prey?’ Takes you to the age-old debate of free will versus fate. He believes ‘it is good to pray even if you don’t believe in God’ and constantly delves into the meaning of life (the predominantly existentialist tinge). How is it different from the objective of life? Or how similar to the reason behind life? While life’s meaning eludes his mind, he supports suicide; ‘When a state makes no effort to make me happy how can it compel me to live a sad life?’ stemming from Salil’s history. 

What about my choice to make my own value system and moral code?’ he asks after reading the morning papers, calling the state’s definitions of crimes against the state ambiguous. Supporting an individual’s will over that of governments. And then, the quintessential truth and beauty of ideas, and that ‘some naked bitter truths that people find repulsive are also beautiful to me. Such truth is necessary for existence’. His last session on his ‘diamond throne’ under the tree is a chapter where ‘I sought wisdom with great intensity, and five trees and two birds could make me see what I never saw before.’ Made me see something novel too!

An interesting thought, wallowing in subjectivity – ‘I do not believe in absolute truth. My mind cannot perceive anything that has no context. All truths are absolute truths, or they are not truth at all. Even if you believe in multiple truths, all those truths are absolute truths at that time and space.

Apart from solitary reaping, the author’s thinking mind reflects equally well in the Title of the book, as well as the myriad forms that Aalya’s ‘shadow’ takes in Salil’s eyes as the book proceeds. The fulcrum remains – ‘The shadow is positive; it’s not the absence of something. It’s an effect of the cause; it’s not a part of the object … her mind is conditioned, her shadow is unconditioned’. How Salil works out his own life’s lessons, to do with love and relationships, around Aalya’s shadow is interesting to read.  

Unfortunately, while the moments of philosophizing stood out, the rest of the aspects – the story, the language, the characterization and a spoiler in the form of Editor’s Foreword (which tells us the whole story, as well as what to think of it) failed to leave a mark. Let me be specific. 

The problems, for me.

There is nothing spectacular about the plot. A linear sequence of a handful of incidents spread over a couple of years. And, there is nothing interesting about the story-line either. In fact, the story could just as well have been written as a short story. In that medium, the ‘twist’ at the end of the tale would have come across as more effective. The philosophy under the jacaranda tree was a saving grace for me.

Then, characterization. I liked how the book began, with each chapter dedicated to a character and his/her thoughts. I thought the characters will be shaped through their individual thoughts being shared directly with the readers. However, except at a few points, the over-arching (sometimes judgmental) narrator feeds us what to think about them, just like the Editor’s Foreword. Thus, the characters don’t grow to become individuals, or even well-rounded caricatures. Except Anupam, but then he is the narrator and the one talking the most.

And language. The author is full of interesting ideas to express, philosophy to share and great analogies to create out of everyday living. But the use of language fails him, and vice versa. The book shows a lack of writing skill (which affects expression) and even, and most disturbingly, a knowledge of basic grammar. Tenses change from line to line, the narrative from first person to second all too suddenly and articles play peek-a-boo, to name a few problems. It takes away, hugely, from enjoying the book. 

Tall Man Small Shadow’ will, at some points, give you moments of philosophical delight, as I have amply shown. But other than that, I wish the novel carried a better narrative, plot and characterization to come together as a whole. And for those who judge a book by the language, this may not be the most satisfying read. In the present form, the book remains one with the right ideas but ultimately an attempt in the wrong medium of communication. 

Title – Tall Man Small Shadow
Author – Vipin Behari Goyal
Publisher –

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

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