Thursday 31 July 2014

It's a beautiful life

There was a fly sitting on her eye. She knew that. She could feel that. It’s a beautiful life … She did not know how to make it go away, as it tickled her slightly swollen eyelid looking for something between those lashes and making tiny footprints with the kohl that had formed wild black streams near her nose. It was moving around, that tiny fly, confident as if knowing the hands that could smash it away would not do it because they were stuck above her head, feeling the wet straw between the numb fingers. Wet. The cow must have urinated again. How many times do cows urinate? Is this the third time since I got here? Fourth? Is that the Sun outside? It’s a beautiful life … Something is crawling up my thigh … or is it flowing down? 

Her eyes remained motionless as she lay there, as if in deep sleep, while her mind played images ridden with white noise like an antenna on a stormy night which could not handle the gusts. Cannot handle any more, how tired I feel … that … that man … was just a child … murderer … no matter how hard she tried her hands still disobeyed and refused to crawl to that patch between her legs and under her. What was warm a few hours ago was fast becoming dry. And brittle. 

Then, she urinated. 

It burned like acid through her very being. The fly flew away. A drop of hot tear had disturbed its peace. The cow looked on, still confused after a whole night.

There were whispers around the house which her pregnant mind had not comprehended. To her, all that mattered was the reason to celebrate. For the first time in her year old marriage, if someone was to remove her ghunghat and look at her face, they would have beheld happiness personified like never before. Hope too, but happiness more. Where once a will power of steel was required to make unheard taunts about her family, her sisters, her father, her mother, her clothes, her thin frame, her 12th pass certificate, her oily food, her wasteful habit of buying bangles, not minding her pallu, her … now nothing was required. Once, it was as if she was made to stand barefoot on a hot tava, and still expected to not jump. But now, with head bent and eyes looking at her chipped toes in respect of everyone but herself, she just shut her ears when venom was poured into them. She now had something to look forward to. To keep her expectant mind cocooned. Beyond this noise. 

Whenever people disturbed her thoughts about the future that was fast approaching, she would let her finger brush against the gold-plated earrings which then chimed a giggly-girly tune. A tune that would make a few waves around her ears dancing like a dervish before entering her being making her whole body ring with happiness. A reminder to self, or maybe a secret signal shared with what was to come? Nervous with excitement she would clutch her stomach, look for a vacant spot behind the mud house and just close her eyes, feigning giddiness. To feel one with herself, all parts of herself. It’s a beautiful life. It’s just so beautiful… and her 19 year old mind would cook up a tune singing this line on a loop. As if it was a tiny girl sitting on a swing with the ribbons on her two plaits flying carefree in the wind.

That night she had woken up when she felt something was pressing down on her stomach. Or was it pressing from within? It was him, her husband, on top of her. We shouldn’t … it’s not right … please … it’s risky, it doesn’t feel right … please and in that moment she had realized her hands were tied. And he was tying up her legs too, right at the thighs. Bewildered beyond belief she had tried to scream but her calls for help only fell on invisible ears acting abettors. A black tape sealed her lips together to make her swallow her own disbelief. It made mute the gold-plated earrings too. As if her secret signal had been found. The prick of the injection was the last feeling she remembered. Not even the sounds and smells of the cow shed woke her up for that one hour. She remained on the floor. Alone. Like a bundle of clothes one tosses out for they have no more use for it. 

It is then that she woke up, and died a million times over. 

The labour had been induced. The girl was coming. But, it was not meant to. Not today, nor ever. It was pushing against her insides desperate to be freed and here she was, helpless to let it come to spread her legs to even scream. It must be a mistake … he should know … help … but all that the cow heard was muffled sounds it understood not. 

Her back burned and radiated shocks of pain towards her front, tightening those claws by the minute as if asking for deliverance for itself from committing this evil deed. Her wrists bled and the rope dug deeper into her thighs as her legs ached to open wide. To let out, let go, let be, be free. Nothing worked, as she writhed like a worm that has been stepped upon. She lay praying she would explode. Hoping her belly would burst open and make the baby come out. Alive. Alive, please… please. By now she had swallowed her vomit three times. The pain didn’t let her faint, waiting to reach that threshold which even Gods must shudder to think about. Where are you, dear God? Help me, please, help, hel … and then she had passed out, imagining the last sound that she heard to be a baby's cry.

My belly has burst … my … my baby is free. Free. It’s a beautiful life. How many times do cows urinate? … Is that the Sun outside? It’s a beautiful life … Something is crawling up my thigh … or is it flowing down? 

It’s a beautiful life … my … my baby is free.

The fly was back, this time on the gold-plated earring lying murdered below the tape.

Monday 28 July 2014

On Gratitude

You know how rain falls. 

Stray drops at first, as if the cloud is still making up its mind. You stare at the cemented courtyard floor waiting to see if the black dots are increasing, wondering if it is indeed rain and not the first floor people hanging their washed linen. You look up at the clouds, and then down again. Seeing the smaller circles dry, already, but almost hoping there’s more where that came from. And then, it does come. Slowly at first, and soon enough much faster, taking over in sight and sound what was once just a dull broken floor with a tulsi plant in the corner thirsting for respite. Finally you breathe, ‘It’s raining!’ Instinctively, you inhale. Expectantly too, for you know the earth will smell good, for you. The leaves shine greener, for you. The breeze blow cooler, yes, for you. 

Why not! If belief can move mountains, just imagine what contentment can flow from believing in a larger loom of goodness making weaves of happiness around you, just for you. And then, just half a breath is all it takes to send a quiet paper plane of ‘thank you’, sometimes with the destination marked, but often simply skywards charting its own path. 

I don’t think I have said as many thank-you's ever in my life as I have in this month of July speeding by. 

My son started formal schooling and best wishes for a boy who loves back as unconditionally as the love he receives came pouring in. My seventh wedding anniversary followed close on the heels of his big school milestone, and over mails and messages we were blessed with many years of togetherness. In walked some extra smiles, as someone’s ‘many happy returns of the day’ made our Facebook friends post birthday wishes on both the husband’s and the wife’s walls. We corrected them, of course, but thanked them too for their wishes, because each came with a ‘happy’ in it. And then, when a short story written by me saw itself in print, with a lovely book cover and a launch date complete, the excited flow of congratulations from those long lost in the play grounds of school or nooks and corners of college life had to be met with a barrage of equally elated  thank-you’s in return. 

Just when I thought it must be over for now … 

Strange are the ways in which small gestures make you feel all warm inside, make you appreciate things as they stand. To have been on these people’s minds made me feel good. It also made me wonder, beyond all the music and noise that we call life, about what I truly am grateful for and to whom.

And when I say ‘Thank God’ it’s not Him alone I mean, or Her…

I also mean People.

Those who I call family and friends and those who like to be called family and my friends. Whether around all the time, or once in an important blue moon, they help me form a chain of support much like bars on a ladder which I climb – sometimes with feet planted firmly on the rungs, other times with my hands and arms taking the weight, with each muscle aching for a push from below. And getting it. A phone call, a text message or just a ‘Hi, long time!’

And even those people who recede from my life. Relationships once forged but only to die a natural death, as if the bond came with an expiry date, and reached it. Those friends of yore who took a few steps back, first, and then many more to go beyond what the naked eye can see (not memory, no) for not always can two different minds be ready to grow together? Those people conspicuous by absence on my most happy days, and on those which broke my back. A natural severing. Meant to be. And so, not a loss but as if making space for others, for how many can we carry as we move ahead in life? 

Strangers too, who make their presence felt where even once is enough. That woman in a maroon and black suit who asked an old man to de-board a bus because he was behaving badly with the girl that I was in college. That guard at the school gate who calls my son ‘sir’, waving a goodbye through his big moustaches. Making me feel my son is safe. That auto driver who dropped me home, sans haggling sans cheating sans over-charging on a day Delhi swept off in the rains. And that lady who I shared the auto and broken Punjabi with, for there was a river on the road and she did not mind taking me along, making her two kids sit in her tiny lap. Thank God! 

When I say ‘Thank God’ it’s not Him alone I mean, or Her…

I also mean Circumstances.

Some call them results of free will some pronounce them pre-destined. Some look for beautiful patterns in life and call them coincidences. I have had my share of each, even as I type. For how can I not say thank you for that moment which got me to write? And write again? And be read and read some more? The circumstances which seemed vile but were blessings in disguise, and those which remained so sweet I never need sugar in my coffee any more. Those situations which may mean nothing today, but may acquire meaning tomorrow. And decisions from days gone by withering away as irrelevant this day. Each, no matter how small, a fitting piece of this jigsaw puzzle we call life. Propelling it forward, or making it reach a break. All for  good reason. For, what other reason can we need to believe in? 

There is just so much to be thankful about today. Say, this auspicious day of Eid, when ‘On Gratitude’ took birth on my blog. And I sit flying that paper plane skywards and saying Thank You!

Thursday 24 July 2014

Book Review – Lucifer’s Lungi by Nitin Sawant

I begin this review of Nitin Sawant’s novella ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ with my least favourite quote from the book: 

Different regions here (in Southern India) had a different word for it – veshti, mundu, panche and so on. But for us non-South Indians who can’t fathom the subtle differences, every flowing waist-cloth around a male loin was just a lungi.

Least favourite because it takes me to that sari shop in Ernakulum where, for lack of any knowledge about this piece of clothing, I carelessly called a mundu a lungi, much to the chagrin of three, yes three, floor boys who held the beautiful cream and golden piece high up like a palanquin and declared, with a pinch of pride, that this is a mundu. They pointed to a blue checkered pile, called it lungi and went away to cater to more discerning customers. Whether I regained my courage enough to buy a sari is a story not to be told. But the quirky title of the book took me back to that evening, where I was the very Lucifer raising Lungis to Godhead. Thankfully for Nitin, the book is doing no such thing. Or is it? 

The protagonist of this sparsely populated novella is an urban man whose ‘life has gotten so dull that on a silent night I could hear my soul rust’. Someone suggests weekend travel to relax that corporate neck of his and ‘a series of enchanted escapades’ begin. This book is about one such trip to an unpronounceable village so un-touristy that even the bus conductor cannot understand why ‘saar’ is going there, if not to buy flowers or start a temple! To tell you more about what unfolds between the city-slicker, a priest’s boy, lotuses in the middle of the pond, Luganar’s smell, a black thread and the holy mound in the jungle would be telling too much. So, no more about it!

Let's see what I liked and did not about this novella.

The Story – A Pocket-sized Rocket

'Lucifer’s Lungi’ is only 100 pages of a tiny sized book (okay, give or take five pages). And what a punch it packs! I usually don’t overdo talk of pace of a novel/novella, for each reader reads at his own comfortable speed – defined by eye-sight, time of day, number of children at home, degree of exploitative bosses, electricity office’s mercy, etc, and with such external factors bearing upon our minds, the story’s speed can often be misjudged as our own. But ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ amazed me with how fast it flew, not just because it is short but also because Nitin seems to have put in exactly the amount of incidences and words around those incidences as would make for a tight, speedy yet unhurried read. I began at gear four and ended my journey at five, and at no point was I over-speeding.

Apart from the pace, the story itself is interesting and a very creative way of making Atheism “meet” Theism at a crossroad, literally! The intrigue is on when the bus conductor pronounces ‘Don’t see people like you going down there, saar …’ for a village which is as much hidden from the readers’ view as revealed at this point in the beginning of the book. (Sue the North Indian in me, but I found the setting of the book exotic.) A stinking mystery is created around this lake-centered temple town producing flowers by the truck-loads and we are left wondering if a murder too is following close behind the heels of this ‘coughing misery’ roadways bus. 

Further, stray vernacular words like ‘Apattu’ (hazardous) to ‘Tondaravu’ (trouble) are murmured around the English-speaking narrator at points which keep our ears attentive, imaging anything from angry Gods to ghosts, or even a left-over lungi at the border of the town a page later, or even sooner. Most chapters end with vague statements like ‘This stinking thing can kill you, saar’ and keep the readers’ imagination working over-time, till and even beyond the grand finale night; for nights after all are 'the first mind-altering drug that ever got made’. 

If I could, I would delete the last but final sentence from this book. That’s all! 

The Idea behind the Story – inviting Tondaravu, no doubt!

Nitin Sawant’s narrator carries a ‘No Entry sign on my spiritual street’ and likes to believe he is a man of reason and rationality over religion. Little wonder then, that taking shelter in a temple and making friends with the priest, Sarvana his boy (who is ‘going to defend the shining honour of his entire upbringing’) and other villagers comes with a pre-set rider. It is through various such God-no God discussions (and encounters!) that Nitin pours into the novel scenes of Atheism versus Theism in shades ranging from horror to comic, and then their revisions too. Picture this, in a most holy setting:

I looked up at the deity. My God, was he angry or what? If only looks could kill, then he was already armed enough … the scowl on his face was indeed carved in stone' was said for Luganar and a little later in the book the good God hears this from him – 'I could imagine why well-educated guys like Sarvana still believed more in Palayar than science. This Big Guy could evoke that kind of confidence. I guess that’s what deity idols in most temples do – give us confidence. It I had a favour to ask, this is exactly the kind of idol that I would ask from.' This self-talk continues throughout to culminate in a better understanding of the phenomenon of belief, for it is ‘always easier to hang on to some convenient make-believe truth than to search for an absolute one.

While the arguments used by the narrator or the villagers to support their beliefs are not novel enough to be codified in the next journal on religion and spirituality,  their presentation through discussions or slapstick comedy are wonderfully entertaining, as is the mumbo-jumbo-jumble-up of legends and religions from across the world (you too must be wondering why Lucifer is wearing a lungi!). Eventually, the discussion reaches the dangerous border of the village and 30 minutes of horrific, action-packed, life-changing experiences which leave the narrator facing truth naked and naked before his eyes, as a ‘free man’ but one whose adrenaline had a field day night. But for more, read the book.

Language maketh a writer, and his narrator, alas!

I am no grammar-arian, but I do believe that when you choose a language to write in you need to be very careful about basic grammar. A lot of us get turned off at the first drunken bout of tenses or articles going missing. To err is human, but to err and err again? From the “po-logue” to the last sentence, the narrative carrier mistakes which slipped through the writer's and editor's eyes. Some examples, apart from the persistently strange (though not incorrect) use of ‘I’d’ – 

‘Night after night I would sit in my hotel balcony and stare vacuously in the emptiness of the night.’
‘The place practically grows up on you’
‘The boy … leading me around the temple to the backside.’
‘We do, sometimes. In holidays or when friends come over.’

Then, the narrator uses slang most of the time. While I did think the ‘kinda’ and ‘Gawd’ helped in places to show his mind’s nonchalance towards all things religious and inexplicable and add comic effect to the scenes of action, an over dose made me wonder if it was required at all. Do we who stay in cities talk (and think) in this manner alone? What could have been used as a technique to endear us to this young narrator makes him seem too casual, careless and might I say, shallow in some very significant places. Also, while his mind matures over the day he spends in the village enough to re-examine his ideas once set in stone, his language fails to compliment it.  I think I would have surely fallen in love with this ‘guy’ if only he had not called the bus conductor ‘lowly’ or generalised about ‘we Indians’ in a couple of places and kept his slang in check. As a character, Sarvana came across as my favourite. 

Nitin Sawant’s ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ marks a novel(la) attempt to broach a most controversial issue with such contraries (of ease and tension, humour and horror) that the book does not disappoint despite the shortcomings I speak about. I also think it can be made into a wonderful short story for children, if we adults would like them to read about this man’s journey to a very holy town and hear him say ‘Ironical, isn’t it? Clean stones for dirty souls …’ In the end what is affirmed is the human ability to trust and distrust and the very interesting phenomenon of how, while the Gods themselves may not be doing anything, belief in them is moving mountains, and hearts too. 

Author: Nitin Sawant
Publisher: Fablery

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

Tuesday 22 July 2014

The Stat Connection is Opinion

I have been actively blogging for just over a year now. It was in the spring of 2013 when weather-happy fingers found a topic a day to pore over and then pour out and onto my online space I call ‘Between Write and Wrong’. I was so regular with writing whatever came to mind that some months down I wonder if it’s age, stage or a combination of both that has made my posts' flow go from a broken barrage to one which is manned and optimized to about two posts a week. Be that as it may, this is my 180th post. And after writing on whatever became visible under the shining Sun, today I sit for the first time to see why the top posts on my blog are the ones which are. Should be quite telling about what readers like to read, or what I am good at.

In descending order of popularity, here they are:

1. Sounding the Red Siren Against Sexual Abuse – this post was written to add my voice to Protsahan and Unicef’s fight against sexual abuse. I had shared a personal experience of meeting a sexually abused girl in a Jhuggi Jhopri Shishu Mandir I taught in while still in college.

2. Oh Chetan Bhagat! Read what you write – A rebuttal post to Bhagat’s published opinions about women, men, work, home, cooking, marriage, children, you get the drift! Yes, I was disagreeing with him.

3. Book Review – Sita’s Curse by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu – This book review of a feminist erotica was written a few weeks back but seems to be grabbing enough eye balls to be the third most popular post. Not just sex, talk of sex sells too, it seems.

4. An Open Letter to Educated Indians – One of my favourite posts from my pen. An opinion editorial as a civil servant’s wife, talking about how the rot is not just in the bureaucratic “system” but within us as citizens seeking services too. As honest as it could get!

5. The Tamasha of Birth and Death – The most spontaneous post on my blog. Ringing true like a personal rant and talking about the circus (of rituals and superstitions, terms and conditions) Indian society surrounds birth and death with.

What is common to all these posts? Opinion. About society hiding faces of sexual abuse or about citizenry bribing the tax collector while cursing corruption at India Gate. About a book which talks of sex or a man who talks about everything cooking in his head and serving it semi-baked. Opinions, all. And they seem to be read the most on my blog. Liked or not is a different matter, but then, that is the power of any opinion – it sells, nonetheless, takers or no takers.

We all have an opinion about anything that can be opined about, which in turn means everything. And why not! Free speech, free thoughts, freedom to express and free air time are some of the molecules that complete the structure of free will. It is good to have an opinion. It means, primarily, that we can think, we can reason, we can look in all eight directions, raise the grass in pincer clasp and release it to know which direction the wind is blowing from. And then, tell the world that it is blowing from the right or blowing totally wrong. Our opinion is like our gold star on a popular pavement, not as unique as our fingerprint, but ours.  

However, is it that easy to be pregnant with exclusive opinion? To be able to turn down the volume of screaming masses around or disconnect the social headphones altogether and think on your own? In an ivory tower, or at your desk, reading-researching-recording the real stories and our thoughts removed from the voices spoon feeding our heads?  Feeding – in the name of fashion or populism, conformism or revolution, nurture or membership, rebellion or discipline? It’s not easy, perhaps almost unnatural to even expect so from our own selves. They say nothing in this world is original and also that man is a social animal and …

… and a complete animal sometimes in how he dispenses with these opinions, some formed mostly borrowed – in words or through action. Over drinks in a drawing room with body language going down the flush or discussions on Twitter with Arnab in the background and 80-120 threatening to burst open the aorta, while the art of “gathering” an opinion has been honed to perfection the artistry (also called civility) of speaking it out is fast receding into loud chaos. Almost as if we cannot let another speak, because we do not want to hear a different point of view or even our own point of view from a different mouth, for how dare he echo me! It is becoming increasingly difficult to be challenged in our thoughts, because we think "we opine, and therefore we are". That opinions make us, form our complete identity. But then, doesn't how we spread them seem important too, as does the intent behind the cussing? Such a strange thought comes to mind and says the ‘how you say it’ is the shoe and the ‘what you say’ the man standing inside it. And the whole arrangement needs to be polished. Know what I mean? 

And look how I opine, about opinions. I am no less. So now, laying the blame on the top 5 posts on my blog and the yarn of thoughts they spun, off I go to switch on the television and see who slapped whom, and who all are slapping each other in celebration of it. I promise to sit through it and try to chew my own cud. Sometimes, I too cannot swallow it and call it 'opinion-I-ate-it' but itch to spit it out in the form of another opinion post and a tiara we all proudly wear - called 'opinionated'!

Maybe it will make it to the top slot too, one day?

[WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - The stat connection - Go to your Stats page and check your top three-five posts. Why do you think they’ve been successful? Find the connection between them, and write about it.]  

Friday 18 July 2014

Book Review – And We Remained by Asad Ali Junaid

What a lovely title to a book ‘And We Remained’ is. There is a sense of contented incompleteness to it, like ellipses leading to an invisible forever-after. Yet, it may signify a conclusion; a three-letter full stop with the finality that only Fate can bring with it. A finality that could be a happy one, or one coloured with nostalgia, or even pathos. I liked it, for the curiosity that it created. But the very next moment I read the sub-title ‘An absorbing story told differently …’ and a hmm escaped my lips. I wish the author, Asad Ali Junaid, had not included this phrase, that too on the cover. By being fed thus, the reviewer’s eye was instantly trained on these two aspects – story and narration, as were her heightened expectations.

And We Remained’ is set in Bangalore in the late 1990s, in an India seeing socio-economic changes and on the precipice of another century walking in. The book circles around five friends – Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David – and the women in their lives, especially Wardha. The story is told in two ways – as first person narratives by the main characters and alternatively, through email exchanges between them when they are out of their Engineering colleges and spread across India, USA and UK, working or hunting for work. And women. You will receive this book like you do the regular cup of coffee from college canteens – with love, heartbreak, prison, politics, drinking and strip clubs all in the same bean, written in a language that is simple, young, conversational, often slangy, definitely lacking lyricism but certainly not correctness. But when you read, you will also find that little something which keeps the book different from the ones published around this theme. I found two such things. 

A story ‘told differently’

I liked the narrative technique Asad attempted in his novel. Two parallels – of life in two different phases of time – run from cover to cover. The account of the engineering college days is in first person, with each main character speaking directly to us readers in alternate chapters. These narrations bring forth each character’s individual voice as well as portray the friendship that keeps them as one. While there is no heavy duty drama or deep streams of consciousness surrounding these peeps into their minds, you will find an occasional dose of philosophy – on love, women and even on Philosophy itself; a very raw and young version to my old mind, but one I could relate to from my much younger days. I liked what Sandeep says at a difficult turn in their job placement days – ‘I had come across a quote by Dr. Wayne Dyer: Your life is but a parenthesis in eternity. We felt smaller than these parenthesis then …’ 

The other parallel is of their working life’s experience, some years hence, and through a series of short mails with the date and time in place; much like quick conversations but which not just propel the story forward but also give the book an ample dose of humour through their back-slapping camaraderie. Anand is advising Sandeep on women, their favourite topic – ‘Look at your age, and your tummy too. There is a difference between making things happen and things happening on their own. You will otherwise have to start trusting your mom to initiate things…also, when nothing works, PRAY. There is immeasurable power in it. I will pray for you, and you please pray for yourself and, for a change, everybody pray for our good old Sandeep to find one for himself. After that we can pray for each other’. The humour is simple, unpretentious and sans effort.  

But the most interesting bit was how these conversations, happening from within different continents, become cross-country nuggets documenting cultures which these 20-somethings in their salad days of working have come to occupy.

In the ‘Synopsis’ of the book that the book carries, I had pencilled the portion which mentioned that their intertwined stories are told in the backdrop of ‘a fast changing society’ and a ‘nation in flux’. I wanted to see how, if at all, this is brought forth by Asad. It is, and that is the second good point about this book.

Foreign shores and a ‘Nation in Flux’

From the advent of emails to the crowning of Facebook, from the Twin Towers falling to the education system in India, from South India’s freestyle dance ‘dappan koothu’ to Bollywood in the UK and from an India where sex is dirty to a USA where strip clubs are just free expression, the email interactions between Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David chronicle and document a context not just children from the 90s but those living today would nod their heads in agreement to. 

We come to know of an India where ‘examples (for anti-ragging) were needed and we were made into examples’, falsely, and post 9/11 paranoia in the US where ‘everyone in law enforcement … had become very touchy’. We see how ‘being treated like aliens’ is as common in another country as it is in our own, and while finding friends is easy, finding work not so. While a sleeveless top on girls in their engineering college is a blue moon and mothers still keep a tab on their sons' phone calls, Sahir’s experience at “Mardi Gras” with women lifting their shirts for a bead necklace in return contrasts the societies for us, as it impresses upon these young minds how different the world outside of their own is. We see repressed an Indian psychology itching to shed the tag of virginity with none the courage to, except to discuss it over mails, and to no avail. We are told of education in different countries, with most people in India (where ‘we were “trained” and never “taught”) never understanding why Sahir is ‘studying philosophy (in the US), especially after I have finished BE in Electrical Engineering’ and with a mother who declares to the world that ‘If you are thinking of studying any further I will jump off the second floor of our house’. And then, a hint of winds of change, from Valentine’s Day to job opportunities, crossing the seven seas to enter our country which was taking baby steps out of the box. 

And amidst all this emailing over a decade, what is also chronicled is age - ‘the most telling sign of receding youth is not balding or a paunch, it is when you do not feel like laughing as much any more.

I do remain a little disappointed …

Notice how I am yet to mention Wardha and love and love story? While ‘And We Remained’ is a story told differently, the story itself is not so ‘absorbing’. On the third page of the book we hear Sahir musing ‘Stories about love did not end like this … Or did they?’, almost asking us to keep our pens and papers ready to note down if this story ends as any different from the usual college romances. 

Like a song on repeat it runs from freshers to elections to fests to freshers to elections again. Wardha fails to attain the significance that is promised her at the end of the book, especially since the group of friends have ample other women to talk about. While the picture presented is real, the love angle of the story is damp and could have been done away with completely, especially since the ‘seriousness’ of the relationship between Wardha and Sahir does not come across successfully. If I were to talk of endearing relationship portrayals, I would say that nothing beats the camaraderie between Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David or the beauty of the relationship between Sahir and Sandeep. While it is true that ‘the line of trouble brewing … was common across all our hands, a part of our kismet’, pretty Wardha fails to make place in the reader’s mind. My question at the end of the story is one which David asks Sahir too – ‘Why have you given Wardha such importance in the book?’ Except, I would ask why have Wardha here at all? 

Another aspect that could have been done better is characterization. Despite unique ways of expression and language through their mails and narrations, the characters seem to merge into one another and not stand out as unique individuals beyond a point. Perhaps because the characters lack depth. (Or maybe, I was much deeper even as a college kid.) Was this done in keeping with the mood of the book, which mostly hovers around the happy-go-lucky? Also, the author’s idea of referring to so many students and teachers as ‘types’ and shoe-boxing them did not help. Yes, they are real but how would you as a creator shape them beyond typical if you yourself call them ‘types’ multiple times in the book? And that is why the aim of the story to show ‘four different points of view on something that happened in our lives’ partially failed. 

And We Remained’ remains a light and entertaining read ending on a sweet note and affirming the bonds of college friendship, exactly what its author intended it to be. That there was never any ambition to make it anything other than what it is is apparent. I connected with the book not because it is a masterpiece in the world of writing and Literature but only because I have been through it all when I was in college. So in that sense, it is a fun way to re-visit days of your own freshers’ party and college elections, breaking hearts and finding new ones. I do have to give it to its author for being the one-man army behind the book – writing it, designing the cover and then publishing it too. 

I wonder what he eats for breakfast! 

Publisher: Asad Ali Junaid

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

Sunday 13 July 2014

Hit me baby one more time!

The Gods must be crazy, and the goblins running the rumour mill crazier. For the latest on the grape vine, which hangs heavy with sour bunches, is that if you are good looking by some standard you get more readers on your blog. That it is not about writing any more, like it was once (for after all, Shakespeare did manage plenty of hits). That it is all about features which match the ideal assets the fantasies in your reader-head enjoy. Insulting, sad and unbelievable, all at the same time. But who is surprised?

Picture this. 

A stranger who considered himself a brilliant-but-wronged writer asked me to write a post for him and him for me. An experiment that would involve us to publish each other’s works in our own names and exchange the hits number at the end of the day. He wanted to prove that content is not king, but pretty faces are queens, and that under my hat his ink will find kisses while mine will fade in comparison. I politely refused, finding the totally resistible offer slightly offensive for implying my writing unworthy of sustaining a readership and also realizing soon enough that some heads which hate to take no for an answer even fail to spot nonsense planted in their own. His parting words threw ‘you vane woman’ at me. But before I could tell him to make that ‘vain’, he had vanished into thin air. Probably hiding in another’s inbox which acted abettor in his research crime to make me publish, in my name, something written by a dude whose commas and punctuation were like drunk ants doing striptease atop an express train. With full stops flying everywhere, off course, of course! 

To think that someone's else's balderdash flowing from upturned toilet bins can make you think … 

Reminded me of a man asking his wife to pick a gynaecologist who was the least good looking of the lot, for that meant she spent more time studying medicine properly rather than in front of a mirror. Hence, a better doctor! So strange that his wife would believe him; all ten manicured nails and highlighted hair of hers included, to pop her kid out! So strange again that we have reached Mars but our minds sit cosy inside a caveman’s animal skin toga, quivering with inferiority or envy on spotting in others physical features matching brain quotient in their sharpness.
And you don’t even need to be blonde any more to take the sh** cake! I talk of only one segment, where Blogging meets Bollywood and apparently proves that if you have the right face you need have nothing more, for then a good number of readers and publishers will follow as night follows day. And good writing, well, who needs that anyway.  Isn’t the dude who sent me the message for a life-changing research sitting without a woman’s bullet lodged in his chest?  

First things first; thank you for the compliment. It is super to know one belongs to a good looking genepool. For such fortunate planetary disposition I thank God first, then my parents, Galileo, some of my favourite teachers, Mendel, my dog Timmy, Darwin and the latest ladybug stuffed toy we got and named Gaston (after Gaston in Ben and Holly, that is).

And now for some serious talk. 

Pray, what is wrong with making oneself look good? Of showing aligned teeth in profile pictures or legs-above-the-knee in party ones? Of knowing the waist-to-shoulder proportion is perfect or that the face turned leftish looks best? Does colour on my lips make me any more fake than the free-flowing compliment on yours? That kohl in my eyes is as much a part of my outdoors as is my phone, and it is me who decides if the blush is pink or not there at all. About berries, I love to eat them and wear them too, sun shine or star light I decide. Only me!

Such misplaced are the times that a pretty picture in ‘About me’ on your site can make not just men but women too to attribute to you feats the very devil on your shoulders would shudder to perform. Of course, the devil may make you pout those lips, all the way from your timelines to theirs. But then you wonder, why bother, why kiss and make up with a dinosaur or use terms like sexist or feminist for brains which think no bigger than a pea.  

And more importantly, how, just how does a blogger's face conforming to conventional ideas of beauty make a reader spend 2 minutes and 30 seconds (average, Alexa says) reading a post about a book review or a short story, leaving behind feedback which proves they were paying attention and not fantasizing sipping coffee with her mascaraed eyes? It is not as if I'm picking my peasant skirt just over my knee to hitch a ride. Even if I were, why did you stop the car? If you expected to see me in my Sunday best lingerie in a post about exactly that, then, delusional reader, it tells everything about you and zilch about me, apart from saying nothing about the others who enjoy reading me. And who, gasp and fume and beat your chest as you may, keep those ‘hits’ coming in! Quite steadily!

I don’t hang around your breed to know enough about it, but I can still advise. How about you experiment on your own the next time around, without trying to rope in a pretty face allegedly unfairly enjoying it all or posting anonymous comments on Blogger Confession pages with the courage of a rat in the deep end of a pool? You don’t even need to doll yourself up. Just make sure the grammar is in place, creativity bribed in and something, anything, unique enough about it to make your readers want to ‘hit’ you again. You need the support of imagination and language, not a wonder bra for sustained readership. You see, you need to turn that gaze in the right direction to get inspired, and that direction is not another’s body. In the mean time, don’t forget to remain polite and pleasant. Sweetness is fashionably under rated, and last I checked it helps you look good too!

PS – You saw the picture on the top, didn't you? How silly and stupid I looked. But you still read me to the end? Hm! That would be another 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

Thank you for ‘hitting’ me, baby, one more time! 

[WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Opposite Day - If you normally write non-fiction, post a photo. If you normally post images, write fiction. If you normally write fiction, write a poem. If you normally write poetry, draw a picture - As you can see, I did post a picture, but then I had to write too. I just had to!]

Thursday 10 July 2014

Book Review – Vicky Goes Veg by Vicky Ratnani

'Chaat, to lick, so you know what I mean. Crunchy, healthy and sexy. This is how I look at and interpret today’s eating habits and trends,' says Vicky Ratnani.

Now, I am the kind who calls buttering my bread cooking. My gas cylinder lasts me months, and when my oven is switched on it is to warm food which was cooked to celebrate something special the previous day – say, Messi’s goal, 100,000 hits on the blog, and so on. For all other times, I work up … a meal, somehow! May sound a tad hyperbolic in keeping with my Punjabi roots, but really, this is as close as it gets to my culinary truth. And so, I had to laugh out loud when I was asked to review none other than Vicky’s latest book. I agreed to, but with a rider attached - that I will not furnish my own versions/recipes of any of this Master Chef’s dishes. Because, dear reader, I simply cannot.

About the Book

Vicky Goes Veg’ is vegetarianism made mouth-watering and fun. The dishes hail from all over the world but come with an Indian twist. So you will find Braised Plantain with Thai spices sharing green space with Hing-roasted Pumpkin, Vegetable Shepherd’s Pie, and so on. A lovely mix of countries and ingredients, with pinches of Vicky’s special masala combinations. From salads and soups and party starters, to one-pot meals and sweeties, the book leaves no course unturned. My favourite ones from the collection were - Minted Chickpeas and Crispy Orka, Roasted Red Pepper Soup, Stromboli, Green Chilli and Raw Mango Risotto and Lemon and Basil Panna Cotta.

At your coffee table, you will sit turning the pages and savouring the recipes way beyond the last drop in your mug is consumed, not just because the dishes are interesting for someone who likes cooking vegetarian food but also because the book presents them as nothing less than gorgeous. This is not pocket sized cook book with procedures in black and white. ‘Vicky Goes Veg’ carries some wonderful photographs – be they of Vicky’s well-known-on-TV expressions or of food and ingredients. Each page is designed to delight. What caught my eye the most were pictures 'from the old world subzi mandis to the new vegetable bazaars' and of the 'people behind it'. Vicky believed in turning the limelight on the grass roots even as he cooked roots and grasses in his well-known kitchen. I found this personal touch endearing and one which added character to this compilation.

Apart from the presentation and graphics, the content of the book – the methodology of cooking each dish - is put in a simple, step-by-step manner. The language is more conversational than scientific and dotted with Vicky’s ready wit and homely analogies. The dishes, even to my green eyes, seemed earthy, fuss free and easy to make, enough to give a home-cook-sans-caliber like me confidence to try them. What added to the experience of learning were tiny coloured boxes floating on each page – carrying anything from tips and tricks to trivia from across the world. Even suggestions like 'pass this recipe on to the bhutta wallah – he’ll simply love you for it!' for BBQ Corn with Chilli and Lime Butter. 

About Vicky

If you watch his cookery show on television, you will in part know already what Vicky Ratnani stands for. I find him fun, endearing, casual yet meticulous, super talented and making you believe exactly that about yourself too. In tees and jeans he’ll use hands more than ladles and make you feel at home with his comfortable style of cooking. And, as luck would have it and culinary Gods willed it, I found someone who knew him in person to tell us more about Vicky Ratnani. 

Ramanjeet Singh is a chef at his family's Green Hotel and Restaurant, in Pathankot. Some questions that I mailed him to cash in on this coincidence got the following replies:

Q: How do you know Vicky Ratnani?
I have been a great admirer of Vicky for the last many years and never missed a TV show of his in my life. I met him for the first time through social networking. Gradually, over shared interests and professions, we became good friends. I consider him my professional idol and am glad to have him around as a friend and a guide. 

Q: What sets him apart as a celebrity chef?
Vicky is first a chef and then a celebrity. He loves his job more than the flood lights of fame on him. He is humble beyond measure and it amazes me. It is this that gets reflected in every dish that he creates. They are honest, practical and of course, delicious. 

Q: Do you make Vicky’s signature dishes in your restaurant?
Many. I serve many of Vicky’s creations regularly to serve my customers. Some of the popular ones are Cafe O’ Latte, Chicken Escallops, Sloppy Joe and Mango Pepper Cheese Cake. The last dish is my all-time favourite from his kitchen; that is, till now. He is constantly inventing and I am sure I will have a new favourite soon. 

Q: A secret about Vicky?
He is crazy about Mughlai food. And yes home-made pickles too. That's the way to Vicky's heart!

Vicky Goes Veg’ is one of the better cookbooks on my shelf. For all the reasons mentioned above and also because it's creator won me over with this - 'Don’t watch the calories when you eat. Trust me, these sinful calories are completely worth it. Enjoy your life!'

Now that fits my bill just right!

Title: Vicky Goes Veg
Author: Vicky Ratnani
Publisher: Collins

[Tying this up with WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Earworm - Write whatever you normally write about, and weave in a book quote, film quote, or song lyric that’s been sticking with you this week.]

Monday 7 July 2014

Orkut and my wedding anniversary

I received a goodbye mail from Orkut yesterday, the first social networking site I had bungee jumped into sans any strings attached to my teenage feet. Having failed to keep itself as popular as other sites, Orkut was shutting shop and with a letter titled ‘Farewell to Orkut’ I was being invited to collect half my virtual lifetime’s worth of archives to store in a Zip folder and preserve, perhaps, for a day when it will seem antiquated enough to be material for personal museums. Or maybe, because some of us have memories all hues attached to our presences, our identities and our relationships on that site, and which deserved space in our present and our future too. 

I do. And to be honest, Orkut’s retirement has saddened me.

Not that I have been there in the past few years. I live on Facebook, where most of us do now. So, much like an infidel, I too have found greener, more fun pastures to work and network through; enough to gradually forget passwords once created by a much younger mind and beyond the memory of this older one. But you know how, so often, certain objects no longer as significant as they were in our past lives get pushed back into drawers only to be found on a spring-cleaning day, or when a serendipitous reminder of it from unseen hands drops into our letter box? That is what happened yesterday, for that farewell Orkut letter in my inbox came like a steam engine roaring me awake to stories I had become too busy to even think back about. 

Of how my friends removed all Capricorn cobwebs from my old-fashioned mind and conspired to open my Orkut account for me. I needed to be where it’s at, according to them. Over guffaws and word-play a password was decided which I noted down, oh fear of forgetting and stupidity combined, on the front page of a diary – like a label we fix on a child’s almanac in bold red. Thankfully, a kid brother is called exactly that for a reason, and my giggly girly life and times on Orkut continued without prying eyes, till the password acquired maturity of thought, and my practices on the site grew away from child-like curiosity to a carefully contained way of expression becoming of a 20-something. Thankfully, by then I had met enough new people to call friends, joined the requisite communities of schools and colleges and bribed enough with cuppas to write glorifying testimonials for me. Thankfully!  

Because somewhere around that time, I met my husband. On Orkut.

A crazy coincidence of a common friend spotting me in our hometown later he sent me a ‘scrap’, one which he refuses to acknowledge even today, putting on me the ‘blame’ for having sent a friend request too, which actually, he did. I swear! But we were in each other’s lists now. All else (and everyone else too, much to their chagrin) lay forgotten as my Orkut time flowed like a river towards him, and him alone. We made up for all the kind of talk we never did when we continued prudes in school together, stealing glances but mostly squabbling over assemblies and toilet duties. Over messages and comments, we discovered each other, and how we had grown away from what we were. Some Suns later phone numbers were exchanged, and a quickly planned cup of coffee too. After four cups of which, during which time we kept falling a little more in love, we got married. So clichéd, but true!

Of course, the wedding ceremony was not on Orkut. Which reminds me, we turn seven in a few days. And the timing of bye-bye Orkut knocking on our marriage anniversary date brought back memories tinted pink, and also, a lump in my throat. So strange, but true! 

There is more brouhaha about social networking sites than genuine ha-ha on them now. Established researches as well as those born out of a day’s mood advice, almost implore us to not be tempted to remain online too long, cut ten hours to five, five to two, or leave, deactivate and never come back to live a longer, wrinkle-free life. Schoolmarms are defining ‘optimum’ usage, mothers of under-age users ‘the right behavior’. And I agree, for there can exist a dark underbelly to updates shared and relationships forged, or forced, in spaces like FB. And it gets tiring. Exhausting, to keep the hellos up and smiles aglow. And hurtful to learn that what seemed real was just fluff for another. For if forged and forced begin with an ‘f’, so does faked. After more than a decade of enjoying my virtual networks, how unfortunate that days preceding this post shows me how true this is. 

And then I wonder to myself how is it that I continue so happily socially networking, never annoyed with another’s over-doses or wary about my own? Meeting people, making friends, tooting my horn and tom-toming like an over-immune-to-censure cheer girl too? Is it because I believe good things become better and dreadful things less dreary when shared? Yes. Or does FB take away the lonely from alone days and thus gives me company? That too, yes! But most of all, as I sit and seek answers to inexplicable behavior patterns in my virtual life which never reared their heads in the days of Orkut, I wonder. 

I wonder if we other our evils as we blame a website like FB for ruining relationships, and not ourselves for never having genuinely meant to forge them. I wonder if nonchalance and intolerance towards another on www is a photocopy of our attitudes outside of it. I wonder too if the excuse of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ through four albums of a friend's holiday pictures online was relevant in days before the internet when people lived not just like next door neighbours but as family too, crossing over rooftops to borrow dry red chillis or cups of sugar. And I wonder if we want to walk an extra mile to keep, to preserve bonds which do for sure get formed, or lose them all to what fashion asks, lobbies demand, or the queen of a club commands!

Gone are the days of gay abandon and fuss-free minds that Orkut stood for, for me. Of interest in interesting people, or boring boredom itself away. Of a virtual avatar whose behavior no one measured in a petri-dish. Of finding strangers who became permanent friends and translating a foe into a husband. Perhaps, once upon a time we bothered to make amends. To make peace. Talk, hammer, order, order, objection sustained or over-ruled, but sorted! Whereas today, we simply press ‘delete’. And right after that, sign a declaration proclaiming the 101 ways in which FB could be your death.

Just wondering. Anyway.

I remember I dilly-dallied with his proposal seven years back, when Orkut was alive and kicking and not waving goodbye. All ifs and buts that could be born were given birth to, and voiced. My greatest fear remained that our relationship would change with time. And instead of saying ‘Oh! It won’t. Please don’t worry!’ he had said ‘I assure you it would. It would change to exactly what we want it to become!’

He was right. 

I will miss Orkut. Perhaps, this wedding anniversary I will get that O-shaped cake to cut which our friends almost got for us then. For now, time to download a truck-load of the best online memories to pickle and preserve, for even they are changing shades as time goes by. 

Imagine what magic the aroma will create when my son opens the lid, someday!

Friday 4 July 2014

Foot-see and Me

It was my first time. 

Don’t ask how old I was, for by many standards it was late enough to have ushered in at least three babies, if not four. Perhaps, a few dinosaurs too. But so what? Don’t they say there is a right time for everything, and if indecisiveness, ignorance or fear-of-the-unknown has delayed the much needed, blame the lateness on a cocktail of Karma and Kismet with a dash of Zodiac? That is exactly what I was doing as I bathed and perfumed myself, and dressed it all up in Sunday best. Especially the tiny vales between my ten toes, you know, where the dirt unseen rests feeling cosily at home till you discover it one day when it has formed a tiny hill there, much like termites. Or moles. I wore my best flip-flops to walk to the occasion too. 

After all, I was going for my virginal pedicure. 

A lot of firsts happen after your marriage. Ouch! But many in the days just before it too. Somewhere in my 20s I was off to a salon which promised me the most freebies (read pint-sized bottle of Bisleri, a mug of coffee, an umbrella stand to hang my coat/dupatta). Freebies, for the palatial fortune I was to exchange for just getting my dear nails clipped. Moral of the story till now being, I like freebies, and that then I had no idea about pedicures.

A separate section called ‘Foot-see’ opened into a pink and black room lined with chairs which would put the PM’s gaddi to shame - with their grandeur, their gadgetry and the chest-size of the gentlemen standing behind them. Men? Suddenly my nervous lips licked the lip gloss away and my toes twisted into such strange positions of awkwardness that they could just have been possessed with the spirit of an ashamed exorcist himself. I cushioned myself into one which seemed three sizes too big for me, and dipped my feet into a tub of water I swear I wanted to put my head in. And drown. Why? Here I was, ready to risk a pedicure just to escape that-talk-which-forms-the-about-to-be-married-day-at-home, and all I got was a brain on an over-drive, trying to think of ways to keep the legs together enough to please the nuns and fathers who moulded me in school but apart still so the young man with the lovely cheek bones could reach all corners of my feet once they were soft. And supple. And ready to be peeled. 

I peeked at my two innocent feet somewhere down there and blessed the bubbles in the water which were, truth be told, quite relaxing. What wasn’t relaxing was the man with cucumbers on his eyes sitting next to me, getting a head massage, a facial and a pedicure done, even as he spoke on the phone sealing a property deal. Because now, as my eyes held him while his the cucumber slices, I felt it rising up my gut, twirling in my belly and knocking on my teeth to open up my mouth, for Laughter Express was on its way. With its brakes failed! 

Past tense.

To not laugh is impossible for me. Ever since I remember I have had uncanny urges to laugh at just the socially wrong times. For instance, as a little girl in stranger aunties’ and uncles’ arms I would laugh with glee, sometimes because their nostrils looked like obstacle courses and often because the hair on the chin would be singing to me in the breeze. Of course, I escaped censure then, for because of my laughter they gave themselves certificates of merit for being good with kids. Later, I started getting caught. In standard 7, after chopping the hard ink-erasing dirty green rubber into tiny pieces and putting them on the head of the girl just before me, I started laughing. Mrs. Abraham did not find humour in the concept of pulleys and fulcrum that she was teaching and I was standing outside my class the next moment. Still giggling, by the way. And braces on teeth played traitor too, for my mouth would barely close. In standard 12 it did not help to have a Hindi teacher who kept repeating to us ‘Bharat krishi pradan desh hai’ after every full stop, and tautology I do find amusing. What to do! Also, if you think no one gets sent out of class on laughing out-of-context (but in-context with what’s inside the head, imagined or in full view of) you are wrong!

Present, in Foot-see now.   

Testosterone had done its deed on that man next to me, and in patches it had left hair-free there was cream. If he was Greek, I could have passed him off as a chocolate frost cake with a cherry on top. But he wasn’t, and there was nothing on top. With jeans folded up to his knees his feet were getting massaged, as mine would be soon. I watched out of curiosity, I swear, for it was my first time and clearly he was a veteran. And then, the right pressure points started getting activated on his sole by a man in black who seemed responsible for his feet by the day, and his drunken safety as a bouncer at night. And how they touched his soul! ‘Why don’t you talk to Golden Foresssttt … ten, he will give ten … its two bighaaaa … aah … so what if the approach road it narrow … oooh … 20 flats? Hmm … mmm … no man, just getting paddy done ... nnnn...’ and it went on. Property dealing and orgasmic foot healing, as the pedi-curer did his job as if nothing was wrong with the world. 

My belly was distended with the whole 9 months of laughter, as if an army of feathers was tickling it on the inside. I had to get it out, oh, I just had to laugh. Should I fake a phone call and release it? Bathroom, no, I won’t reach in time. Shame shame! Marriageable woman and still doesn’t know how to hold it in. Little did I know the solution lay in the problem itself, for as my good looking worked my now-soft feet, the tickle buds all over them got provoked beyond all Edens. Forget awkward toes and legs apart moments and all monster men frothing next door. Forget even that I was all grown up. It started showing its teeth, from the feet upwards, and with all things in the head acting the very fuel for it.

First, a little giggle. Then two, together. And then, like floodgates of a whole generation repressed from expressing, I laughed. The mouth-wide-open, head-thrown-back variety of laughter. Louder than ever. The dumbstruck staff stared, first at my funny feet and then at my face contorted like a monkey, as I jerked my right foot alternatively away and towards my attendant to make them clean. Almost as if I was cycling! This had to stop. And stop it I did. I just told myself then that maybe this could wait too for after marriage, among other things. Ouch!   

Of course, I paid the full amount. My overly tickly feet were not their problem. Thankfully, neither was my tickly tummy for the man who was now in stage four. Of his paddy, of course. 

P.S. - I continue a virgin in this department. True story, this. 

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - From the gut - Tell us about the last time you had a real, deep, crying-from laughing belly laugh]

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Book Review – Twice Upon a Time by Anjali Bhatia

Anjali Bhatia’s book ‘Twice Upon a Time’ drew me with its title. That most things, since the days of Aesop at least, happened once upon a time mattered not to this author. With her own twist to a phrase which begins most stories you and I hear, Anjali got me interested in her book instantly. I remember quickly checking to see if the book began thus too, but it did not. It did begin with an equally enigmatic scene-setting though. 

Arpit, Anjali’s young protagonist, is full of ‘reckless self-abhorrence’. Bitter about circumstances which he finds himself in as well as the ‘shallow pool of humanity’, he is ‘trying to make amends … to get back what he lost’. The first few scenes are wrought with his restlessness to come to terms with his past decisions, particularly to make his love, Mannat, more than ‘a beautiful phantom meant to be resurrected only in dreams’. This is when he meets Nishimaya, a modern-day mystic, who helps him travel back into his past psychically, re-visit through his dreams the seven key mistakes that he made then and through the process come out a man who first willingly embraces his demons and then puts them to rest. 

The striking idea of ‘Roots’, and author-speak

When I finished reading ‘Twice Upon a Time’, one particular word took root in my mind. Anjali Bhatia’s book circles like a vine around a central theme - of ‘Roots’. Within the folds of this novel you will find myriad ways in which this theme finds utterance. 

We know human aggression does not always manifest itself as violence, for the other side of a phenomenon like Partition is displacement of people from their native lands; severed not in head or limbs but in their roots. Dispossessed from places where they belonged – in body and in spirit. This idea of migration gains in significance in this novel, for it forms the background to the debate of country versus city, the movement of people away from their holy villages and green hills, the consequences of this relocation and the death of small towns. Reminded me of Gray’s poetry, one of the famous Graveyard Poets, who bemoans the emptiness which villages were fighting as young and old moved towards the outwardly glittering cities. 

Then, when such movement happens, one moves not just physically from a place but emotionally away from what we call ‘extended family’ and friends who once stayed as one. Arpit’s relocation to New Delhi and beyond from Meharsar cleaves his ties with people he loved as a boy, and dictates his decision-making such that later he wants to turn back time itself. It is only when he visits his village after years that he muses to himself – ‘How did I stay away that long?’ When people make up a place, the dispossession is of the hearts too. 

The book, as does its author, carries a strong ecological streak set in an India which has ‘been brought up on legacy of broken promises’. Through varied ideas, predominantly the fight of locals versus corporates over the holy lake in Meharsar, the chilling apathy of corporates and the government machinery towards it, Anjali’s “heart-from-the-hills” is not just making a bold point about sensitivity towards the environment and the ill effects of uncontrolled development but of the larger idea of co-existence as an organic whole; of man and nature in a symbiotic spiritual embrace of care and concern, not use and abuse. For instance, the lake in Meharsar, ‘where it all started, and it is where it will all end’, is perceived as a symbol to spiritually connect human misery with that of nature. 

I enjoyed the topicality she brought to the narrative sans preaching, and the mysticism she attaches to it all to make it quite interesting. Some of the lush green descriptions are stuff that dreams are made of. Literally, in this book, as you will find out.  

As for the rest …

While I admire Anjali for weaving her idealism within her tale and for impressing it upon her readers thus, the tale itself failed to impress me. The ways in which she incorporated ecology and its mysticism into Amrit’s story charmed the environmentalist, but certain aspects about the book as a novel did not the reader/reviewer in me.

The Story moves forward in two ways – either through Amrit’s dreams mentored by Nishi or through a series of coincidences. The dream sequences are well done. They are written beautifully, imagined even better and surpass real life events in significance of dropping hints or furthering the story line. I found the to and fro between the two worlds unique in usage. Something like what Nishi says – ‘Memories are dreams of what once was, and dreams are but memories of what is to be’ - prophetic dreams, used cathartically for Amrit and prettily for the novel. The dreams are so rich in images and sensory perceptions that they stand out as bright spots in an otherwise simple story. They show more than tell, with recurrent images from nature, creating in the reader everything from the dread of drowning to the amazement of sylvan surroundings. It is only the series of coincidences, and only coincidences which form and forward the rest of the story, that seemed a little problematic to me. 

Excess of not everything is bad. But an excess of coincidences defeats the idea behind using them in the first place. If every turn in the story hinges around one, neither do they manage to create a surprise element nor help in keeping the story believable. That is exactly what happens in this book. Event after event and either you end up saying ‘It’s a small world’ or you wonder if this is some other-worldly pattern that is beyond man’s, and thus the reader’s, comprehension. Can a string of unfailing coincidences be called a pattern? I don't know! Thus, deeper thoughts about Fate, karma and Time fail to rise. I do wonder. What if the only coincidence was the “travelling painting”, or the Baba’s face and not the scores of others which not just help the story but form the whole story? But that’s a thought for you after you read the book!

Then, many strands of the plot seemed bordering on cliché (I exclude the environmental ones, which are only too real!). Unshaven aimless lovers, fast unto deaths, black sheep in the family, family feuds, teenage love in hill stations, and I could go on. I wish Anjali had done justice to the psychic and mystical sequences by laying them in a story better than what ‘Twice Upon a Time’ enjoys. What a spectacular book the right union would have made!

Most characters could not grow beyond atypical for me. Starting from Amrit to Mannat, to even the well-meaning Veerji, the characters seemed to stand for ideas rather than human beings who I could not see from head-to-toe in my mind’s eye. Even their motives and aims, like Baldev’s (Amrit’s father) resolve to destroy his ancestral village over a family feud seems straight out of a movie. The uni-dimensional characters lack in depth, and I wish we were introduced to their minds through streams of consciousness as much as we are to some of their dreaming. Would have been great to see Amrit’s existential turmoil described better, for instance. Nishi is interesting for the powers that she possesses but not enough to make me admire the author’s skills at characterization.   

And then:
- Why is Arpit ‘wrong’ in picking a glorious academic seat in a college over Mannat when he is not even out of his teens?
- And then, why is he all so suddenly conflicted by those very decisions which even the readers see as ‘practical’ and sane?
- All the re-dreaming and hard work and is this the best closure that Mannat and Arpit could have been given in the book? The last image is vague and unsatisfying to my mind.

As a novel, ‘Twice Upon a Time’ did not excite me in aspects I mention above. It is not the most spectacular piece of fiction on the shelf. Neither is it a precedent setting work of Literature which I love to look for, and which safely go beyond mere touchstones of story, characterisations and language into larger realms of trailblazing trend-setters knocking on codified doors. However, if you enjoy mysticism and its related ideas or, like me, sadly watch the face of your hill town changing expressions in the face of development, you may want to pick this up for a light Sunday afternoon read. 

Title: Twice Upon a Time
Author: Anjali Bhatia
Publisher: FingerPrint

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