Saturday 27 September 2014

On Meeting a Manuscript

If reviewing a book is like taking the wrapper and ribbon off from a mystery gift, reviewing a manuscript is nothing short of being given a hidden treasure chest, with the key to open it. What lies within is virginal, for no other eyes except the author’s have seen it yet. You are told that. Sometimes made to sign and swear that you will keep secret whatever you find inside – jewels, maps or pebbles.

So, there is exclusivity to make you feel special. Curiosity too, and how it kills! There is a taste of power, for you have a license to deconstruct, sift-sort-suggest, to your head’s content. There is also a message in the bottle on your work desk, blinking neon – I trust you. Tell me what you think. Honestly. Thus, more than anything else, reading manuscripts makes you feel very responsible; more than being a caretaker of your own treasure chest can. 

Let me get serious now.

A few months back I became what we call a Beta Reader of manuscripts. As much as the term reminds me of a tool in the Physics lab, it actually makes me feel like a moon-dust robot, a nuke scientist and John Nash rolled into one whenever I say it aloud. Just the term, that is. The work of helping an author with feedback about their stories so they can polish them and make them publisher-ready (to put it very humbly) is much more difficult than the zaniest profession you can think of. 

Let me tell you why it is difficult and why you should call us Alpha Readers and not the second-in-command, Beta.

When an author has spent the better part of his past few years ‘working on’ a manuscript, he knows he is mailing you on an average 320 KB and 70,000 words of perfection. Pure perfection. He presses ‘send’ and your inbox reads 1 New Mail and somewhere in the few seconds in between he becomes a best-selling author – in his head. And you? You sweat, reading the introduction to the attached manuscript which is ‘close to my heart’ and a list straight from some Blue Book reading thus - ‘check this’, ‘notice that’, ‘keep a tab’, ‘what do you think’ and of course, ‘be honest’ – the last almost like a threat with an invisible ‘or else’ attached. After all, you are not the commissioning editor who will be dear-ed. Instantly, your finger nails feel your teeth and your fee seems like salt-free peanuts. 

So, you make a list of your own, next to the one the Boss sent, called ‘Expectations’. Suddenly, you are married to someone’s work and the father of the bride carries a pen (mightier than the sword), while the bride herself seems high-maintenance. Your side of the page, the real Beta list, is but a shadow in comparison. In short, there’s work to be done. The manuscript has to be read with a concentration even your inner eyelids have never seen. Comments and suggestions have to be added in track change mode and in polite language, even if you are asking them to go easy on the expletives. All impulses to kiss-bin-bin-bin-kiss-just-bin the virtual copy in admiration or deliverance have to be resisted. Finally, a chunky document called Overall Feedback has to be readied, which becomes a blueprint for the author to mull over slowly. In all this, do not forget, you have to be honest yet balanced, academic yet not-too-heavy, suggestive yet not over-smart, loud and clear yet not drown his voice and finally, helpful. Phew!

Yes, Alpha Reader would be good. Thank you! 

And then one day, when a book you helped shaped in whatever little (I mean big, actually!) ways sees the light of the published day you cut a cake, pat yourself publicly in the MCD park next door and order Chinese from Yo! China to celebrate “your” success. All jesting apart, it feels very, very good. Right from the point when the message in the bottle from the start is mouthed at the end of the assignment too as ‘I trust you’. That is when, as suggestions you made are incorporated, discussed and worked upon, you realize where the real value of this work lies – in the regard for what you call your impressions and feedback but which mean much more to those receiving them.

Ritu Lalit’s ‘Wrong, for the Right Reasons’ is the first among the manuscripts I beta-read to be a published book. I remember her call when with a semi-certain yet hopeful voice she shared this book’s idea with me, asking me straight away ‘Do you think this will work?’ It was 3 pm on a lazy day, it was 45 degrees, there was no electricity and I had a ripped toe-nail hopping around with me. But nothing clouded the conviction with which I felt for the book. Not just because it was woman-centric; not just because it was about surviving the everyday and not the fantastical but also because I assumed she was going to pour a huge part of her own life’s experiences into this survival account of a young divorced mother-of-two. The result of her hard work is for anyone to read now. 

Wrong, for the Right Reasons’ is one of the most real books you will read this season. It is Shyamoli’s story – as a young divorced woman, a single mother of two, a daughter struggling to break-free from an abusive mother and a person looking to walk on her own terms in a society which defines ‘respect’ in the most constricted of ways and hangs norms like nooses around the necks of single women. What is special about this book is what is seen as amiss in others – there are no sudden twists and turns, no army of characters and not even a flourish of a closure. It tells you a story keeping the sensational and the spectacular away, yet retaining the extraordinary within it, in the form of portrayal of relationships, streams of consciousness and the growth of the characters over the years that span the novel. One of my first doubts was about Shyamoli being too real to be made into a ‘heroine’ but by the end of the manuscript I had revised my idea. She is that exactly because she is life-like. And readers will be able to find a Shyamoli in their lives too. Isn’t that a wonderful thing in a book?

I met one manuscript for coffee first. Then I met some more, and then a few more and I don’t need to stop any more. Each speaks in its own voice to me, in its own style, not just to the reviewer that I am but to the dreamer that I want to be, of holding my own piece of art in my hands one day. Perhaps, that is what makes me love my work, for the possibility it keeps alive in my mind and for the various lessons it tucks within its folds for forwarding that on the right path.  

In the meantime, do you now see why we should be called Alpha Readers and not Beta, the second in command?

Saturday 20 September 2014

Are you being served?

If the written word had measurable decibels, this would be one of my loudest posts. I don’t rant for I don’t trust myself with impassioned screaming where I may spell Punjabi expletives incorrectly (the ignominy!) I also calm my blood down before writing my opinions down because to have one’s genuine piece being read and rejected as Post Menstrual/Marital/Mid-age Stress is but the single biggest discouragement any writer can get. Plus, over-use of ‘annoying’ is so annoying.

I was asked a few moments back about my most tiring experiences as a customer. There are 2 which jumped red lights, broke their lane and came honking to mind with holy stickers on their wind shields. Sadly, these two are as regular in my day-to-day life as my milk man’s thin moustache every morning is. If you too like me stay in New Delhi, these may not be anything new for you. I would still like to ask you though – are you too being served thus?

Parking Fraud

Those young lads manning MCD parking areas all over the city know more about us than even we know. They know we are short of time, perhaps looking at how little we open our windows and how hurriedly snatch the tickets from their hands, before crumpling them and stuffing the ball into our top pockets. They also seem to have realized that we stopped caring for Rs. 10 long back, and especially now when it got converted to mere coins from full-blown currency notes. Why else will they tear the tickets as you see in the picture above? 

I got this parking ticket at PVR Naraina parking lot. Notice how it has been torn. While the rate for parking the car is Rs. 10, the counterfoil is torn such that Rs. 20 is what is visible, asked for and paid. At India Gate, the boards listing the expensive charges have been systematically defaced to "sell" this fraudulent idea. At New Delhi railway station, umbrellas and barricades are placed such that cars coming in are misled into entering the 'Premium Parking' area, where you pay Rs. 100 per entry. In Dilli Haat, the paid parking (with such tickets) even covers areas outside the legally designated areas for parking. Yes, you can park your big car where 'No Parking' boards exist. It’s everywhere!

At many levels, we are "promoting" this cheating at a massive scale pan Delhi. Either we have no idea, in case we do not notice the slip properly because the movie or the sale is about to begin. Or, we know the story but are too embarrassed to argue with the parking guys over a meagre Rs 10. What will the car behind us think, after all?

Try putting your foot down to be served right, instead of on the accelerator to find that elusive parking spot or vacating it for the next in line. Try asking him to check the part of the counterfoil he has left under the thick rubber band. See his face then, hand over the right amount, say good night and then sleep tight knowing a youngling is not discussing with his friends what an owl the Audi driver was. It feels good. 

Toffees for Change

Parents or no parents, the cashiers at so many stores seem better equipped to handle toddler tantrums and sudden urges for sweeties than most of us who popped real-life babies. Why else would they buy packets of Kissme toffees or Cadbury’s Eclairs to give you instead of change which they are always short of? Of course, one may say they are spreading sweetness but oh boy, try calculating what the store is making by giving you a sweet that cost it a paisa instead of the Re. 1 it hands over in exchange and with a smile that would put the frogs’ to shame. 

Our neighbourhood Safal – the one shop which promises fresh vegetables and executes its promise of freshness only once a week from 6 am to 6:30 am, be there or miss it! – is where you find a cash register full of coconut toffees. No matter what time of the day you get your vegetables billed there, they will never have spare change, though by God's grace, they will always have these toffees. 

Initially, I used to refuse taking them leaving behind the change which was my due. The shame-faced cashier used to produce a few coins from somewhere then. Gradually, as I saw through his scheme of things he saw through mine and I was asked to take-toffee-or-leave-it with the confidence of a politician in the Parliament. So, I had no option but to take toffees, and collect them. Yes, sir, I did collect them. (If they were popular ones, I would have bought a packet to add to the kitty) I collected them not just to see by how much an average customer was getting duped per visit but also because one fine day I wanted to take a handful back, in exchange for onions and potatoes and ginger. 

I did exactly that. Stumped, the cashier did not know how to ‘sell’ me the vegetables in exchange for sweeties, or how to refuse. Stumped, the old uncle who had just popped his into his mouth stopped sucking on it. And magically, the woman next in line raised her voice against this practice too. That she was diabetic and this was promoting sugar-intake was a little off the mark from the real reason to reject this phenomenon but it helped. Suddenly, there was the clink of coins and everyone got their change.

From food courts in popular malls to our favourite general stores, the toffee-for-coin is rampant. What does it take to see through the act? I know it takes quite a bit to refuse a kind hand handing you gooey chocolate filled toffees but look close. Apart from the parking guy’s pocket the vegetable cashier’s belly too is shaking in amused disbelief at its dumb customers. And you know as well as I do who they are.  

To be subtly swindled and served thus got my goat. Regularly and by the neck on bad hair days! So much so that finally the goat was ready to offer itself up as mutton to end the ordeal. Up until the day I left her at home, because I had decided to stand by my right to be served right. It’s very easy. It’s very important. It’s also as patriotic as painting a flag on your face every Independence day or for India's cricket match.

Are you being served right?

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Are you being served? - What’s the most dreadful (or wonderful) experience you’ve ever had as a customer?]

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Book Review – Seduced by Murder by Saurbh Katyal

If books were to be judged by their covers, I would never have picked this one. An amateur attempt to show what the story within is about does not do justice to Saurbh Katyal’s ‘Seduced by Murder’. At best it (mis)leads you to believe that a smoking and hot woman is involved. What is this murder mystery about?

Vishal Bajaj is a corporate rat in a race which he wants to exit, because he wants to feel ‘content with being rather than becoming’. A maternal uncle’s death brings his way a one-room office and a desire to restore order in people’s lives, by wearing his uncle’s shoes and becoming a detective. ‘Cheating-husband jobs were my core competency’ up until his old flame, Aditi, seeks his help for investigating the murder of her husband’s brother. With Pranay, his sidekick and Babu, the police officer on call, Vishal works against time and the affected family’s desires to close the case in order to find the killer and stop the corpses from piling high. Spicing his need for alcohol with regular doses of wit, Vishal’s single-handed investigation forms the crux of Saurbh’s ‘Seduced by Murder’. Which means, both Vishal as a character and his methods of investigation form the premise this novel’s narration rests on. 

Vishal, the character

If the author did not have us believe that he works in the corporate world, I would have thought he is a private detective himself. Or is he, in his free time and on the sly? For how else would he be able to create such a well fleshed-out personality as that of Vishal's? 

In the protagonist of this novel we find a real and believable man; intelligent, of course, but also presented with all his vulnerabilities. There is nothing superhero-ish about him (except for two fight sequences, whose grandeur is forgotten the moment he catches a fever simply by getting wet in the rain). He unravels the mystery by relying purely on circumstantial evidence, logic, timely articulation and a regular supply of tongue-in-cheek humour. Not just who he is, but how he is characterized as the book progresses is something to notice too, as Saurbh gives equal space to the detective that he is without as the conflict-ridden person that he is within. His loves and his losses form a quiet backdrop to the action happening in the fore, especially Vishal’s relationships with his booze and with his past. Which essentially means – he is etched for the readers through his dialogues as well as his narration of the story.

However, what remains most impressive about this man is his power of observation, his eye for reading characters and his ability to make us see them through his portrayal. He speaks directly to the readers to reveal characters to us so convincingly that we trust him blindly. Even when he is driving and drinking!

The level of Mystery 

Think back to those old Bollywood movies where crimes were investigated by detectives who came built in with an articulate mind, a good degree of foresight and at the most a magnifying glass in their hands. Where footprints to tyre tracks and gestures to signals helped solve the most heinous crimes through the detectives’ hawk-like eyes. That is ‘Seduced by Murder’ for you, in print. By completely relying on the human ability to solve crimes sans gadgets and radars, GPS and supercomputers, Saurbh has created an authentic detective novel with a strong old-time flavour. Three things help maintain the level of mystery high at most points of the narration:

The one aspect that propels the story forward even more than incidents are the series of clues discovered at the scenes of crime or in peace time. Through eyes or vibes, noise and lights, gestures and objects; catching a standalone word or by noticing the missing grief on someone’s face; even sniffing the smell of deception or seeing a father’s swelling pride. Hints and clues inch the story-line forward at varying speeds and with different degrees of success, as Saurbh wills, of course.

Then, answers are sought scientifically and unravelled with clinical precision, from point to point. This leaves very little room for dramatic situations and personae. Each character is serving a sane role in the scheme of things, without running amok with a knife in hand or surprising you with a gun shot in the head. This also helps in keeping the plausibility of the story from dropping. For this reason, 'Seduced by Murder' does not aim to thrill or chill but keep you firmly grounded in intelligent investigation.

I recently learnt about points of tension/twist which need to be present as well as be spread apart just right in order to keep the reader involved. On the 25th page itself Vishal announces ‘this meant … the murderer was staring at me right now’. The reader is instantly set thinking. Then, with just 25 pages to go, we hear ‘It was all so evident that I was surprised I had missed it’ and we wonder if we had been on a wild goose chase all along too. Throughout, as Vishal changes tracks, he keeps you on your toes too. Multiple such turns, many intentionally misleading, keep you engrossed and guessing till the very end. When Vishal finally and with full conviction 'locks eyes with the murderer, and he pales,’ another heart beat of a fully-involved reader is skipped. The mystery still remains far from solved!   

Alas! I smell some problems.

Vishal and Pranay’s relationship is portrayed so well at the start of the book. Standing in direct contrast to each other, the two as a team would have made a perfect Indian answer for foreign detective-duo imports. It was not to be, because somewhere in the beginning of the action Pranay takes a back seat, and goes missing. Mysteriously! Why? Is it to aggrandize Vishal and keep the limelight on him from getting diluted? Or, did Saurbh forget the absent-minded, bumbling yet endearing role Pranay played in Vishal’s investigative life? I wish I had seen more of Pranay.

Babu, the police officer, comes across as a type borrowed from a comedy movie rather than one investigating such a high profile crime. He seems too naïve with ‘I got … carried away’ being his best defence for derailing the investigation at multiple points. He could have served as a foil to Vishal in so many ways. Not that that would make his lack of investigative “skills” any plausible as a man heading this murder's trail.

I don’t know what the last chapter is doing there, especially since Aditi’s seductive presence has either been missing from the scenes or been immensely unhelpful in carrying the story forward. For that exact reason, I would have titled the book differently too. Or was the title an attempt to mislead, making this, my comment, a spoiler?  

Finally ...

Seduced by Murder’ is a brave risk at writing a murder mystery, not just because it is old-fashioned in its execution but also because it is so sparsely populated by characters that it runs the risk of getting predictable. I could not predict the end because the continuous stream of the narration left no time for me to think, which speaks for how well the sequencing of events is done. What makes me happy to see is how Saurbh has lent a proper Indian flavour to this murder mystery –  the characters, the habits of the police, the real estate trade, the socio-economic ramifications of murder in a high-class family and even the way the press hungers for scoops. The book is simple (not simplistic), interesting and unpretentious. For those of us who enjoyed detectives with magnifying glasses in their hands will enjoy this book. At this point all I can say is 'I have a hunch … let’s see’, as Vishal would say.

Author: Saurbh Katyal
Publisher: Bluejay

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

Sunday 14 September 2014

Oldies Online and a Silly Switch

Mickey Mouse in his modern Clubhouse has a Silly Switch, which is essentially a multi-coloured lever with an ‘up’ and a ‘down’, the handle pilots use to fly planes faster in the storm when snakes, aliens or terrorists hijack them. Now, when this silly switch is switched on in this Clubhouse, silly things start happening all around. Think of H. E. Wilkinson’s poem ‘Topsy Turvy Land’ and multiply it by 10. That silly! Loony hell breaks loose. Tea pots start dancing, pairs of shoes elope and gadgets develop a mind of their own. The only thing that helps is finally pulling the lever down and stopping the silliness. 

While someone from Mickey’s brigade manages to do that sooner than later, it seems the young blood of today wonders if a Goofy has pulled the Silly Switch lever full way up in the world of chubsy-tubsy Oldies and their newly found retirement plan - the Internet. I will explain, but first some background. 

If we were to calculate the number of old people socially networking and those in queue waiting for the password to come to their minds from two hours ago, I am sure we will arrive at a mind-boggling figure. Those lovely pastimes of yore like gardening, knitting, sewing, walking and staring into infinity on park benches are gradually making way for a new found love lovingly called ‘doing the Internet’. Of course, there is a time for everything so surfing the web will probably mean post-medicines and after Philips Top 10 re-runs, but can be adjusted before cleaning the dentures, because teeth we don’t need in the www. So progressive, futuristic and so very cute! 

That is exactly why the youth of today are not amused.

With children either settled abroad or as far away as is needed to keep nostalgia alive but trips back home expensive, parents running free and wild online are becoming embarrassing, time consuming, reputation-downing and even heart-breaking for the sons and daughters of the said hexa-hepta-octa-genarians. While the old men and women were unavailable for comment (it must be www time), I spoke to some youngsters on why they seem so disturbed with their parents opening Gmail accounts and ‘coming on’ FB, for instance.

Says a 28-year-old woman (name withheld) working in the private sector – ‘My mother started using the internet a few months back. I was home for a holiday and for the first time ever she was more interested in ‘learning the net’ than rolling besan ladoos for me.  I opened her accounts, made the necessary flow charts, painted the CPU button red so she could locate it and came back to my working life without home-made achaar, ghee and nighties. My train was yet to reach when a Facebook notification said she had posted on my timeline. My moment full of pride turned dreary when I read ‘You have left two bras and one matching panty hanging on the clothes line. Please buy new ones. Only cotton, okay? Make sure you check the elastic. Bye Chunchun.’ At that moment, my phone lost signal. Needless to say, going back to office was a feat worthy of a bravery award. Clearly, she had not understood the concept of a private message. Still hasn’t. I catch her publicly having a private gossip conversation about a third party on the third party’s wall. How silly is that! No, I am not going home for Diwali this time. She can anyway email me spam forwards on how to keep my skin glowing, how to be a grateful daughter and how to find the right match. That is, if she is not posting them on my timeline.’

Zach (name forged) a 19-year-old college student shares his experience with utmost honesty, spiky hair and a hole in his jeans. ‘My dad is becoming an internet addict, man. It’s beyond me why he doesn’t want to read the newspaper any more, or, or talk to his other chums or something about cricket or whatever. It’s like every time I see him he’s sitting in front of the computer, with his nose touching the screen. Gosh, what could he be up to? I saw him on Twitter the other day. A ‘RampModelGal’ was talking about types of balls and he was discussing cricket with her. To think that my coach from school follows him. Shucks. Help me, man. I worry for him. He even sent a ‘namastey ji, have a blast ji’ to Savita Bhabhi thinking she’s his office senior’s wife celebrating her 50th birthday. He even accepted the invitation and RT-ed it when she said ‘my place, tonight ji.’ I am so screwed. To top it all, he will reason it out with me why this is the same Savita who I rode when I was a baby by poring over her picture. WTH, dude! He just doesn’t get it. Get him off!’

The Silly Switch is fully up, indeed.

Horrifically silly tales of oldies on the web can be heard from all corners of the world. A hypochondriac woman had a mild anxiety attack when her son screamed at her for getting a virus into the system. In the US of A, a man confused Google Plus with his insulin injection’s name and forgot he was yet to take it. He had spent 4 hours joining well-being communities there. A woman who won a spam lottery got so over-excited that her coronary arteries made her faint, come to, faint, come to and finally faint in the neighbour’s driveway. She could inform her friend only after gaining consciousness.  

This is not all. Oldie BPs are rising sky high looking at how impolite the youth of today are (even error messages are better mannered) refusing to troubleshoot ageing parents’ www-problems in the dusk of their lives. ‘Sorry, I’m busy’ is what the children have to say in answer to simple questions like ‘where is the key to the keyboard?’ and ‘Shared your diaper pics on your timeline. How do I tag my kitty friends now?’

Youngsters are not amused. Why else will they even refuse to respond to their parents’ calls beginning with a merrily innocent ‘Whatsapp, puttar!’ with no net-strings attached? Last I checked, such abused children were looking to form an underground organization for finding Mickey The Mouse. Why? To turn the Silly Switch down, of course. 

Disclaimer – Age is just a number. Do not take offence. I speak from the horse’s mouth.

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Sorry, I’m busy - Tell us about a time when you should have helped someone… but didn’t.] 

Monday 8 September 2014

A Writing Workshop and Me

The last workshop I attended was a Mine and Movement Workshop organized in college. Those who know me know how many donkey years ago it was. There is a reason why the word ‘workshop’ makes me run in the opposite direction. My mind, with the concentration span of a drunk dragonfly, is not cut-out for prolonged hours of patience, obedience and learning. Biologically too, my body craves movement post-breakfast and a slowing down post-lunch. A workshop, typically, forces you to reverse that pattern. All activities that need joules and ergs and calories happen the moment food forces sweet slumber into our eyes.

So, when Kanchana Bannerjee and Kiran Chaturvedi of Write and Beyond asked me to participate in a day-long writing workshop, truth be told both my mind and my body protested. I will have to sit in one place pre-lunch and keep the energy from anda bhurji bottled up while after a sumptuous meal and generous doses of wine I will be asked to write, read, share and get critiqued. To top it all, it’s a Sunday – a day God deemed holy enough to not ‘work’, but only ‘shop’! 

However, I went, because two dear friends were inviting me – Kanchana and Writing. 

A round of hellos was done and we were at the brink of beginning when these handles right behind the speakers took it upon themselves to distract me. A magical deer party in the cupboard gone out of hand or a gaming party’s loot being put to use? Too much to begin with so I panned to the bottles of wine. I tell you, one of them did wave and say ‘Pick me now!’ I did not then, because a sweet voice had begun to welcome us. Once she was finished I no longer found time to play silly with my own thoughts. There was much else that was planned! 

Kiran Chaturvedi, versed in the psychology of writing, took us through an exercise to relax our minds. A sort of letting go of all thoughts which may have followed us there, say of babies and daddies, pending deadlines and bosses, cupboards and their handles too. Whereas so many of us write when we are brimming with stories, never before did I realize how important an empty mind is for clarity of thought in writing. To be in touch with ourselves is to be in touch with the stories waiting to be told through our pens. We opened our eyes to find a box full of objects which smelled unique. ‘Pick any one, smell it and write for 5 minutes about what it evoked in your head’, Kiran announced to the tune of lovely music. Tempted as I was to pocket the Body Shop shampoo and the Khadi soap, all such banal thoughts lay forgotten when everyone starting reading out their handwritten words, as I did mine with immense self-consciousness. 

13 different strokes by 13 different people! 

A kind of shared-writing exercise with people you have never met before but who are ready to put down their most private of thoughts on the table before you in the form of a few paragraphs - for catharsis, feedback or both. The spontaneity was both challenging and revealing about us as writers. Similar time-bound exercises around common prompts with feedback from more experienced people helped me calm my misgivings about my writing while brought to the fore strengths which I never thought existed. Needless to say, my mind no longer found any reasons to wander, except when we broke for tea and I couldn’t stop admiring the biscuit which looked like a chess-board. Delicious it was! 

Kanchana’s session was what can be called ‘experience speaking’. With a publisher-ready manuscript polished and proudly adorning her desk, Kanchana is fresh from the oven! Touching on important aspects of fiction writing like Characterisation, Time and Narration and Tension (which I had no clue about!), she put before us some simple rules of writing which are oft-forgotten. For vainglorious writers like me who fall in love with their own words enough to ramble on, her tips were manna from Heaven, and great accompaniments to the red wine in the glass before me. 

By now we were in a room-full of back-slapping camaraderie and I wished I was in my jeans. The formality of chanderi suddenly seemed so unnecessary!

What is indispensably necessary for those of us who dream of our name on book covers is interaction with those who have reached their milestone. Devapriya Roy, with two published books to her credit, began her session with simple introductions. While we spoke about ourselves she drew out the silk to note it down on the white board – our reasons for writing, with a book recommendation ready on her lips. ‘Show up, show up, show up at your desk, and the muse will show up too’ and ‘Write, but please read, read and read. A lot!’ are additions to the post-its I love sticking on the fridge. In touch with classics as much as with her contemporaries, Devapriya’s session helped me realize why ‘literary’ is not a bad word just because it doesn’t read ‘popular’ and why ‘form’ is an important aspect for maturity of writing. I felt delighted to know that blogging would no longer make me turn my back to the genre of my liking. This time, I had a huge sip of the wine. After all, I got saved from turning an infidel!

Satyarth Nayak, published recently, came to tell us about those we cannot do with, or without. No, I don’t mean husbands. I mean Agents and Publishers. I use them as proper nouns here for their might and say I was made to understand through Satyarth’s own publishing journey. If patience paid then a manuscript submitted to the publisher would make you a millionaire even before your book is out. Satyarth’s session, though not of immediate relevance to me, made me understand the historic war between “market-driven” and “artistic freedom” that so many manuscripts have to face. He had to chop his to 1/3rd its original size. Thankfully, he did not omit the enigmatically done fight scene he read from his book ‘The Emperor’s Riddles’. Except, I can never look at an eye ball the same way!

The workshop ended with a long writing session on randomly given prompts. The best thing? Everyone wrote. The authors, the mentors and us participants because somewhere those lines had been erased and it had become one big group of writers forever learning. Each write-up was patiently critiqued by the published authors and we were helped in arriving at our niches. To have someone erudite enough paying so much attention to my scribblings is something that is not easy to come by, and neither is such good writing company. 

I cannot thank 'Write and Beyond' enough for a Sunday spent so wonderfully! 


Kiran and Kanchana

PS - On the way out I did remember to check. The handles on the cupboard were not real antlers at all. They were crafted from wood. Just thought maybe you too, like me, were holding on to that imagery. We should why not! For who knows what best-selling stories can begin with exactly that thought? All we need to do is ‘show up’!

Saturday 6 September 2014

Beard Talk

I will begin this manly post with swearing. Here goes – I swear that any resemblance between the items of this post and your brothers, boyfriends, blogger-throbs, sons, husbands and fathers-in-law is a matter of pure coincidence. I am pinching the skin of my Adam’s Apple and saying this. Swear! No fingers or toes are crossed as I say this and what is, remains none of your business.

I also promise you this post has not been written for a shaving contest with a year’s supply of pretty blue ladies razors up for grabs, even though I need one so badly my son has been mixing up my legs for my husband’s. Like it matters! Horses all kinds are meant to have hair all over. I’m only keeping it very real for my child’s favourite four-legged activity.

This post, macrocosmically, is a confession of the handful of regrets I have. Microcosmically, they are all to do with me commenting virally on the various kinds of beards I see walking-talking around me and how! Just imagine yourself a priest with me in the confession box and read. Also, I have made peace with the ‘Woman, you have sinned’ in my life so keep it to yourself and “listen” in silence. You see, I had to drink half a glass of Horlicks to feel encouraged to do this, especially since I’m not a regrets-on-the-table kind of person even though I am often quite a regrettable companion .

Like when I couldn’t resist asking my best friend’s brand new husband why he sports a week-long stubble every time we get together for a formal party. If only I had asked him just that on his house warming do. But no. How could I? ‘When you get your house whitewashed next time you don’t need sandpaper to scrub the floor.’ My husband, oh that clean shaven man God bless him, had choked, coughed, caught my thigh under the table and squeezed it. Our secret signal for when my sense of humour is lance-shaped. We met for my friend’s birthday at a swanky restaurant where he gifted her a pug in pink ribbons. All seemed to be going well with the mike being passed around and barks and blessings being tuned out when ‘Happy birthday, Sheena. Oh, you won’t need a brush to make your dog’s coat shiny and flea-free. You married one!’ said my mouth, half full of apple custard. I wasn’t drunk. Four vodkas with lime make you honest, not drunk (Do try it at home.) Of course I went home soon after, but with the greatest doubt playing aloud – does she wear gloves before doing paari to him? 

Did I ask her boyfriend this the next time we met? Of course!

A very cute boy in college had my full attention, till he started growing hair on his chin. No beard no moustache. It spread like a coir door mat covering what didn’t anyway seem a strong point of his features. Just his chin. In a few weeks, there was a forest there. I always wondered what shape the hair was in – Oval? Circle? Star? – Till he took a proud selfie with his chin raised and I realized it was shaped like algae and looked it too. Anyway, his door mat went wherever he did and I was certain I saw the guitar on his back green with jealousy in Chandni Chowk, wondering how come guitars were no longer the sole cynosures for 20-somethings. 'Did you kiss the ground Anil Kapoor walked on? His assets are stuck on your chin!’ The face he made I thought no human could. But then again, anything is possible with golgappe in the mouth. By Diwali we had made up. His mom sent gajar ka halwa for us poor hostellers. ‘Happy Diwali, Jiggs. You peeled the carrots well. Hope your mum didn’t take those nods as a yes for marriage.’ 

Obviously, I said it after I had eaten up the halwa. It was yum!

The most sinfully fascinating of all is that tiny beard (beard?) middle aged men have taken a liking to. Irrespective of the shape of the face, or any shape at all, so many are seen sporting an inverted triangle right under their lower lip, the most unloved place. An attempt to look kewl dewd? Younger? Nostalgia for college? While I was still trying to solve the mystery, one mister I had to encounter. Had to. Across a meal table. First I thought it was a bit of dal makhni stuck. After much staring in the direction of his lips, I realized it was follicular growth. That’s all it took to make me imagine him shaving in front of his mirror – razor in one hand, magnifying glass in the other, chin out-stretched with the combined efforts of teeth and tongue, and Van Gogh’s artistry. ‘You a fan of Shakespeare, sir?’ I had blurted before stuffing my mouth with biryani and hoping the “imperial” bone didn’t go the wrong way down his throat. It didn’t. The talk veered to the favourite topic between just-met friends – the GoI - and between sips of Coke and high on camaraderie I pointed towards him and said – ‘You could be a mascot for the government's Family Planning Scheme. Just paint the inverted triangle red.

Needless to say, I blamed it on the caffeine. Needless to mention he will never lunch with me again.

I regret to have said all this and then to have repeated it here. So to whomsoever it is due, here's a heart-felt apology. 

But then, Humanity is bound in the sameness of being. Plato Neitzsche Decartes Anonymous said so. I am sure you too must have had the same beard thoughts. No? Very similar thoughts? Come on! Are you saying you have never noticed how the biggest most well-maintained mooches grow beneath shiny clean pates? The Gods work in crazy ways and the human body in crazier. ‘We can have hair!’ the foot-long monsters seem to be symbolising.  

Wait, let me go write about it in another post. 

And regret it all in yet another!  

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Regrets, I’ve had a few - What’s your biggest regret? How would your life have been different if you’d made another decision?]

Monday 1 September 2014

Book Review – Café Latte by Amit Shankar

I think when Man first invented short story anthologies it was done keeping this day and age in mind – you know, the quickie-reading era. Short concentration spans, limited reading time and enough to distract us in the world of technology leave us with very little motivation for a long drawn novel. And where are we reading? As much as we like to imagine a French window with white curtains overlooking a Gulmohar tree in full bloom and a teak rocking chair under our derrière with a book in hand, we, dear readers, are reading in air planes and trains, en route offices stuck in jams or while waiting for a coffee date. That is where anthologies come to play an important role, for they expect nothing more than a few minutes of surrendering to a certain author’s story – his ideas, her thoughts, his characters, her twist – before freeing you of the obligation to read any further. And then, variety is called the spice of life for a reason. Don’t you think? 

Café Latte’ by Amit Shankar is a collection of ‘Eighteen Unusual Short Stories’ from different genres. In the Prologue he himself assures us that this is ‘a very unusual compilation … typing the stories as they happened.’ Spontaneity is indeed apparent in each of the 18 stories, but what is unusual about a select few is not how they have been executed, or how the themes have been rendered. The uniqueness is either a trait of the protagonists or their professions, their reactions or their relationships. Hence, the stories in themselves are not unusual. The subjects of some make them so.

The ones which shook me and stirred me

The Black Widow’ kept me awake long after I had called it a day and switched off the lights. I was shaken enough to expect the phone to ring any second and a woman to whisper from the other side. To get a paranormal story to do that to you is tough these days, what with “muses” in the form of Holly-Bolly and a rerun of X-Files on Star World, that too in HD. Amit managed the stories of this genre very well. '26 Down Express’ is another example, where Mr. Gupta’s crazed “You take good care of Tinni. She is a sweet girl” shocked me as much as it did Bikash, the girl’s father. I did not see what was coming even when I was just a millimetre away from it.  

I have always believed that while shocks are short lived, the stories which stay with you are the ones which stirred something deeper than your goosebumps. Poignant stories with characters who touch a chord with us carry a universal appeal which surpasses all trappings and techniques of the plot. Three such stories drew me in with their warmth, their unhurried narrative, honesty of thought and the simplicity of the protagonists. ‘Code of Honour’ - a father’s letter to his son from the frontline, ‘The Jazz Player’ – one of the saddest stories I have read in recent times and ‘Home Sweet Home’- with its beautiful expression of old age and the desire to own a home. The ambient detailing of a mother readying her child for school in ‘The Other Side’ was well done. I could smell the roasting oats!

In terms of execution and experimental writing, ‘The Lion, the Leopard and the Hyena’ stood out, as it reminded me of Plato’s dialogues with his student and the power of convincing through question-answer and logic. Also, ‘Every Mouse Ain’t a Mickey Mouse’ for unconventionality of thought as well as an unusual style of narration. (I only wonder why the author used ‘ain’t’, a word no one does here or even there, across the seven seas!) 

The ones which fell flat, and why

Some short stories in ‘Café Latte’ just did not live up to the mark set by the aforementioned ones. ‘Temple of the King’ was typical, ‘Let Me Help You Die’ predictable from a mile away, ‘Smart TV’ flat in delivery and effects and ‘A Highway Called Life’ too moral science for my taste, with a moral attached.

I want to mention two overarching problems with the stories in this book:

1. Closures – A recurrent habit that Amit Shankar could do without is making the closures of his stories too explanatory. He will have to believe that the reader is an intelligent animal and that the idea that he is trying to put across has been well received. Unnecessarily putting in so many words the idea behind the story weighs the balance towards ‘tell’ and away from ‘show’, often eating into the effect of the story and leaving a childish after taste. ‘The Chosen One’ is a sweet little story of an interestingly employed young man and the idea of work-life destiny. Except for the way it ends. 

2. Language – Simple and spontaneous, for the most part the language suits the style that comes to the author most naturally. However, erroneous “slips of tongue” dotted almost all the stories. Some examples – Beginning sentences with ‘Though/Although’ and using ‘but’ as a conjunction in the same sentence, sentences like ‘I know I have never written you long letters’ and ‘but why to mix drinks?’, vagaries like ‘He was not finding enough air in his lungs’, incorrect syntax like in ‘I tried today also, and…’, and missing words like in ‘What do I gain being a lion?’ Good editing could easily have creased these away.  

Café Latte’ is not a perfect anthology of short stories. Even as I say that, I wonder if any anthology can be homogeneously and universally satisfying. After all, if there is variety to the stories and genres in the book the same holds true for the kinds of readers and their tastes in the tales too. I will recommend this collection as an accompaniment to your coffee for the simplicity with which Amit Shankar explores and presents the dynamics of human relationships, the conflict-ridden world of jobs, the meaningless of living and the all-powerful idea of loss and death, picking real stories right up from surroundings that you and I share. An entertaining collection.

Title: Cafe Latte
Author: Amit Shankar
Publisher: Vitasta

[This review was commissioned by The Bookaholics. All views are my own.]

For the love of books

Little else can give a book lover something to look forward as much as a book mela can. After waiting not-so-patiently for a whole working week, I finally went to the Delhi Book Fair yesterday. My family of three came home richer by two backpacks full of these objects of desire. From children’s books to a coffee table book on the history of the world; from new writers to classicists; from essays to poetry – our collection has been beautifully added to. 

As I make space on my already burgeoning shelf today, the book lover in me feels rich. However, I also realize how my wallet is much emptier than it was before I went on this spree. You see, when temptation strikes the first thing to go out of the window is financial wisdom. At least for me. Interestingly, you are greedy and a spendthrift at the same time – greedy for the books yet with a wallet with its mouth generously wide open. And that is exactly what happened! When I look at the foot long bill of the loot from yesterday, I get a minor electric shock.

I wish books were cheaper or came with mouth-watering deals all the time. I wish reaching them did not always involve driving 20 kilometers, parking hassles, hunting among the piles, jostling hungry crowds and bargaining for more than a 10 per cent discount after finally finding ones which you can afford to adopt and take home with you. Add to that the motherly involvement of keeping the child fed, hydrated, happy and interested for 5-6 hours at a stretch and in hind-sight it does seem like quite a humongous task achieved. 

I think it is time to explore the online world of books beyond the popular portals for book buying and discount deals. You know, something like Amazon coupons or Flipkart coupons on CupoNation. Not just good deals and offers I can grab for myself but also a convenient way to gift forward what I love to gift the most – books.

I think it is time to move with the times. All for the love of books, of course.

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