Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Mind; The Final Frontier by Ravi Singh

What does it all mean? What is going on in the world? Is a human being merely an advanced and complex robot, which processes information and doesn’t have free will, and choice is merely an illusion? It doesn’t make any sense. But why does it have to make any sense?’ 

Once upon a time, we said ‘to my mind’ before we expressed our opinions. Acronyms like IMHO (In my humble opinion) or TBH (To be honest) were yet to be invented. Probably, we owned our minds much more back then, what with borrowed opinions flying amok now. We invoked the thinking-space before we expressed it. My mind, where my thoughts came from. Which in a way defined us. 

So, when I asked myself what came to my mind immediately when I said the word ‘mind’, the social media addict in me took no time to say ‘Hey! Facebook’s persistent question What’s on your mind? In the status window.’ Which was usually answered with a picture of my dinner or my pet! Thankfully, I got to read Ravi Singh’s ‘Mind: The Final Frontier’ to make me think beyond the visible. To make me disassociate from the given and delve deeper into the unseen… less facile bits of what I call my mind.

In the Acknowledgement section of the book the author confesses that he is prone to ‘weird’ ideas in his mind, about the mind. In it he isn’t alone, for thousands have before him and many more will in the future too try to ‘decode the human mind’. The mother of all answers is curiosity and the human mind is not just the confirmed seat but also the most popular subject of it. Ravi believes ‘answers don’t lie outside but within us. For that, we must understand how the mind works.’ With a beautiful request for open-mindedness, Ravi asks us to ‘… dispel any preconceived notions about the mind, and agree that we do not know what the ‘mind’ is. That should be a good starting point.’ And then ‘see what follows.

The book is divided into three main parts – Part I: Decoding the Anatomy of the Human Mind, Part II: The Universe, God, Love and Morality, Part III: Authentic Life. Each part is further comprised of short and succinct chapters dealing with specific ideas. One look at the chapter names and you know a wide-angle lens has been used for this deconstruction, something that is confirmed once you’ve read the book. Various mental states have been evaluated, as have been over-arching concepts like logic, faith, guilt and even god.  

The basic premise used to unravel the mind was unique for me. Ravi tries to make us see the mind as a computer which processes information. He uses this approach to simplify ideas like self and consciousness while also discussing problems like fear, anxiety and even boredom! 

The Information Processing Approach (IPA) assumes that individuals are, well, information processors. So, an individual receives input information either from his external environment or from internal memory through an interface (say, ears). This input information is processed by a specific processor to produce a change in the individual. This change (physical, chemical, etc), then acts as input information for another processor and so on. For instance, if you like a song the change produced by the processor would cause a sensation of pleasure. As for what a processor is in terms of the human body? While in computers it is a set of instructions, Ravi calls it a ‘mental construct’ and an ‘abstract entity’ here. He divides them into low-level (primitive habit) and high-level (thought-level) processors. Low-level processors include language and pain-pleasure, among others, whereas high-level ones help us analyze, chart-out and choose. 

While I understood the definition of his IPA till this point, a huge part of me doubted if this seemingly simplistic approach could make me see my mind in a new light. And IMHO, it did rather interestingly! 

For instance, how can ‘self’ or ‘I’ be explained using the IPA? Ravi will derive that the notion of self is non-permanent! The mind, with its competing processors and multiple outputs makes the ‘state of mind’ give a cumulative sensation of ‘I’ in a particular context and time. Thus ‘self’ represents reality, rather than being reality itself. So you’re right when you ask ‘Who am I?’ And you’re right if you wonder, if there is no one ‘I’ then whose free will am I talking about?  

This then connects with his idea of consciousness. He infers that it is ‘based on the level of consciousness (that) we have the conception of ‘I’. And further, if the 'window of consciousness’ expands, external time stands still, as we feel 'completely absorbed in the present.’ This state of being devoid of any expectations is a sustainable happiness. Because, ‘fulfilment of high expectations actually makes it difficult to sustain happiness.’ See how one idea connects to the other? 

Ravi Singh’s explanation of ignorance through IPA is about understanding how ‘there is a difference between knowing something at the thought level, and knowing something at the level of lower processors, or the experiential level’. How falsehoods may become truth statements ‘if over a period of time one processor keeps winning over another’. 

Something about decoding psychological fear stuck to me. As a product of a self which by default tries to avoid pain and experience pleasure, here’s what he says about fear: ‘Next time when you experience a fearful thought, try to observe that thought closely. You will see that that very thought is the thinker itself (of that thought). There is no separate self that experiences that thought, rather, it is the thought that experiences itself…and fear will dissolve.’ 

Ravi also argues how logic and emotion are not contrary to each other and with the help of a simple semi-mathematical equation infers that ‘for the doer every action is logical. For the perceiver it may seem logical or emotional based on their own calculation.’ The same equation is used in the analysis and understanding of guilt and faith, till he involves you to a point where you too question in one voice – then is logic itself based on faith? 

To my mind, the chapter called ‘Nature of the Universe; Press Start to Begin’ stands out in the book. It begins thus - ‘Everything in the universe including inanimate things can be governed by information processing.’ You have to suspend all disbelief before you move on; on to more questions. If the universe is a closed system then how did information first enter it? The Big Bang? In a closed system, based on the four dimensions, there cannot be a truly random event. And so ‘if there is even one truly random event in the universe, it indicates that some information from outside the system has leaked into it.’ Between saying it and implying it, Ravi Singh draws us into his idea of evolution, a Matrix World, free will, love and even god. 

I do wish the book ended with this big bang, though. The last three chapters on relationships, job satisfaction and meditation techniques just seem to fade in comparison to what preceded them. Perhaps, they lack the novelty which most of the other chapters shine bright with. The list for references for meditative techniques at the end of the last chapter has one sole reference, and oddly seems incomplete, as if a page went missing. What may also seem missing for some readers who enjoy flourishes and flair even in the most logical and scientific narrations is a certain style – one which uses examples and creative props to drive home the point. Or even humour for that matter! Because, while Ravi Singh’s book hooks you with what it is saying, it may not with how it says it. There are no fancy detours. Examples are repeated in order to explain different concepts. There’s stream-lined focus and purposeful, no-nonsense writing. Almost, as if it is an abridged guide to a larger, more voluminous research.  

Be that as it may, by the time you finish reading ‘Mind: The Final Frontier’, you feel glad to have done that. Ravi Singh gives no grand theories. He makes you see, co-derive and be amazed at how IPA can be used to re-examine ideas which you long thought self-evident. How human minds and machines may not be as far apart as one imagines. This book, the size of an “impulse-buy” in a book shop, belies its conciseness as it begins a large thought-storm, where questions are answered only to give rise to more and more questions. After all, ‘it is preferable to stay in uncertainty than to settle for a truth which one is not convinced of,’ believes Ravi Singh.

A good read for those who like their thought-level processors provoked. Read and then 'see what follows.'

'Mind; The Final Frontier' by Ravi Singh is a Partridge publication, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.] 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

In Air with Air India

How noticeable it is that only to humans 6 years and below, the thought of flying Air India is not depressing. To the older population the idea brings such moroseness that it makes them forget to tag their airport presence and holiday destinations on FB. Oh the international scale of omission! Why the long face one wonders. After all, it’s our national airline! It has a cute little Maharaja as an original mascot - smiling, supplicating, hand-on-the-heart; exactly what we love and vote for in the elections. The air hostesses wear Indian dresses with unique motifs of peacock feathers and peahen frowns browns. They usually serve us our very Indian idli-sambhar. Why then does our Patriotism take flight the moment we learn we’re flying AI? 

Recently, for a flight at 5:00 am we woke up (from a sleep we never slept) at 1:30 am. We reached the airport at a similarly ungodly hour. ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ taught us back in 2005 that 3:00 am in the night is the devil’s hour. It is when we stood at the serpentine baggage check-in queue that we realized Hollywood can be right sometimes and also serpents in any form are satanic! With about 40 people, and their 40X3 bags, before us, this was going to be long. But why? There was only one check-in counter functioning for multiple flights. One! Not that the missing AI staffers didn’t know how many flights take off then. Probably just … striking? We stood, obviously, like others did before us, regularly looking at the length of the queue behind us for morning motivation and not in front. The kid by then made the trolley his bed. 

After 500 years or so of waiting, some AI flights were about to take off without passengers. Non VIP passengers, I mean. So someone obviously lost her patience and screamed ‘why is there only one counter running?’ A man who had by now tied his muffler around his waist in a Kalaripayat style joined in with his thunder. Fortunately for the high dome of IGI airport, the manager on duty standing safely, and invisibly, a kilometre away from the queue heard the echo. Poof! Another counter came alive, almost as if the guy was sleeping behind it all this while, waiting for the question to be asked. As if it was routine. He rubbed his eyes, settled his hair and began staring unblinkingly at his screen. (Solitaire does that to me too.) 

If the queue was moving at a snail’s pace before, it began moving at two snails’ pace now. 

When our turn finally came and we crossed the thick yellow line, we felt like we were Indian Idols selected for the Big Boss house. We sent a silent prayer of gratitude to the Maharaja and this prayer was still on its way when... ‘Check-in baggage toh nahi hai?’ spat the counter no. 1 man. Once the fire from his mouth abated we with guilty voice said yes and with shivering hands put our sole suitcase on his belt. Hand-baggage tags reached us like bullets and we felt ever-so-sorry for having taken His Highness’s precious time and humongous favour. How remiss of us! 

We almost walked away without turning our back to him, humbly bending again and again, retreating from the august presence and fortunate encounter till we finally bumped into the security check sign-board. And another queue, of course. 

So going back to paragraph 1, many of us have our reasons, accumulated like adipose tissue over the years, for forgetting to tag our airport presence and holiday destinations on FB. 

For instance when you reach the door of the AI air craft you find an air hostess or two standing there to welcome you. Except, it may sometimes feel like wiping bare feet on a coir mat which reads ‘Oh well! Come!Namastey is said as if there’s snot all over your face and if you’re lucky it’s said to the air on your right. 

You settle in and look at those mini-TVs with hope in your eyes, as does your kid. You realize they aren’t coming on and it’s no surprise. Kids take longer to deal with harsh truths of life. They press all the buttons. Press press press punch. Then they press all their parents’ buttons which miraculously may have been left un-pressed still, before deciding to watch the dark night outside instead of the Dark Knights next to them. Blankets and pillows are rare and need Raffle Tickets to get lucky enough to land some! 

But surely food is the salvation? Woe befalls you if you’re sitting in the middle of the plane, no matter that it’s the Emergency Door seat and the lives of 300 passengers depend on your pulling the handle in time. That proud-y feeling sinks away as the food carts start rolling your way. You look back. You look in the front. Coming. Coming. Still coming. Almost here. Here! ‘Sorry ma’am. We’ve run out of veg. We can give you bun and jam.’ You’re a Punjabi steam engine in a seat belt but the cork of English-speaking decency keeps the chimney blocked. A meek okay later you decide to mew ‘Excuse me. May I have two buns, please?’ And you know, in your deepest gut you know that was a wrong question to ask and bam! She says as she moves away, louder than before, ‘Sorry! We don’t give extras.’ 8 people hear it, 10 decide to look at you. No one dare look at the air hostess. Suddenly, a vision of your subzi bhaiya comes up. With a halo behind his head. A saint who gives 5-ka-dhaniya free. A saint!

Not that getting food is any guarantee of gastric satisfaction. You see, we were recently served rice with baingan ka bharta. I eat both happily! But together? They are scientifically unmixable and especially with a fork which weighs two times the weight of the whole food tray! I did find 1/4th of a parantha tucked between two rice grains. It was a perfect triangle the length of my middle finger. It was cute. But it didn’t unfurl into a circle. Coffee was served alongside our dinner with a kaam khatam karo zeal and we were left with the supernatural task of mixing-mixing to eat our dinner before the coffee went cold. Or before the trays are collected and the lights turned off. Because they were!

You see, as soon as the last tray was picked, or maybe even before that, the plane went dark. Helped with using the toothpicks but still! Did I hear an air steward announce ‘Lights out! Off to bed!’ No no. It must be my memories of the nunnery interfering with my sense of reality. Anyhow, nearly all the reading lights came on immediately. People had things to do. Important things to read. Funny things to say. Fun holidays to plan. Strange dinner things to wipe off their mouths. In that silver haze what followed is sleep. It better follow, actually! To sleep is human but to snore in an AI flight is divine, because it’s that deep sleep only which can take you away from the goriest and grumpiest of … 

Anyway. Just like all nails scratching a wall must reach the floor some time and stop, so comes to an end your Air India flight. You land. Once before you heard the Captain’s voice asking the crew to just sit down now for takeoff. You again hear a thank you for being in air with Air India from the said Captain, who is impeccably dressed and bordering on handsome but who sounds exactly like a doctor’s handwriting.

The seat-belt sign is off and everyone is up as if they spotted an ATM machine with no queues. The plane is full of hustle and bustle and truant burps and sighs of relief. And amidst all the din and ado, there suddenly shines a ray of hope. Unexpectedly. You realize you hadn’t seen that shine for the longest time. 

The air hostess at the door has a big wide smile for you. A smile! And so do you! For her! 

I guess some goodbyes are sweeter than hellos. Especially when in the national carrier, the nation has finally reached where it wanted to go. Chalo. Kaam khatam hua. Asha kartey hain aap ek baar phir humein …  

Pic from Memegen

Thursday, 10 November 2016

'Band, Baaja, Boys!' by Rachna Singh

If you’ve read Rachna Singh’s books before, that she is funny enough to make all bones turn into ticklish ribs is a fact that needs no establishing. Her humour flows easy, is derived from life as we know it and makes no attempt to fashionably offend. If it does, and when it should, at best it feels like a pinch! So when I picked up ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ I was expecting it to ‘launch a million laughs’, as Rachna herself aimed. It did! What it also did was create a most memorable portrait of Allahabad such that we see it as if sitting in a rickshaw, riding through its narrow lanes, missing the paan spittle by a hair’s breath, peeking into the houses as we pass by and all that with an expert guide. 

Band, Baaja, Boys!’ is a filmy-sweet story with a baraat of characters and a high dose of Hinglish. Each character is created unique in his localness or her quirks, his love angles or her bra straps. Man, woman or neighbor, every one you meet contributes to the Bajpai family’s story; that of 21-year-old Binny’s parents, Brajesh and Kumud, looking for an eligible match for her, while she herself tries fixing one for herself from a handful of bachelor boys. Simple, often silly, day-dreams define the characters, making them sweet as sherbet and bumbling in their small-town aspirations. They endear you individually and yet together paint a picture of the many gully-mohallas that still exist in evolving cities like Allahabad; those spaces living hesitantly at cusps of modernity even when the posher areas hurtle towards an English-speaking “open-mindedness”. 

The portrait of Allahabad then is the portrait of its people; these people in Manphodganj going about their daily businesses and who Rachna brings alive. This portrayal happens in two ways. Mostly it is the hilariously detailed descriptions of characters and the episodes unfurling around them that immensely entertain while showing us Allahabad at close quarters. But at various places in the story of Binny (of parental match-making and romeo romances) the reader also senses the presence of ideas and customs which keep this society where it is - enveloped away from forward-looking views about marriage, daughters and even love.

The fun and funny first.

Rachna’s magnifying glass leaves nothing  uncooked in this Allahabadi sun. Whatever comes under it becomes smoking funny! And a lot does in this place where ‘From Delhi’ was the ultimate style statement’. Girls and boys sat on separate sides, and while ‘the girls took notes the boys watched them taking notes.’ In the Bajpai family ‘an alcoholic was one who could spell r-u-m’ and precious Coke was served in glasses which ‘might as well have served eye-drops’. On the roads ‘Vikrams’ not only transported you to the ‘Minorities Institute of Technology’ but also ‘imparted sage advice via words of wisdom on their rears’. ‘Van Halen’ on t-shirts was understood as ‘forest that is shaking’ and people were rechristened ‘bijli-ghar-waley Sahay’ if the place of work was so enviable! Parents had folders called ‘Tarun Chaubey: Virtues, Merits and Assets’ for daughters and ‘padosi sun lenge’ was the surest way to calm the mother of a truant daughter down... and so on and such fun!

However, amidst all the comic happenings of the book was a note that sometimes broke the laughter, a poignant presence throughout the joy ride. 

Band, Baaja, Boys!’ uses humour through witty one-liners and topsy-turvy events to train our lens on what still teems in many, many societies in our cities. How ‘a fair complexion almost makes up for the missing tube of flesh between the legs’. How ‘ignore the dogs’ was the precious advice parents raised their daughters with. But no parents told their son, Don’t be a dog.’ In times of need it was caste which defined friendship and in Manphodganj ‘I can make your life miserable if you come in my way’ was no empty threat. Directionless boys like Raja came to the cities to study with dreams of feudal love in their eyes while marriageable girls like Binny were kept from joining hobby classes. Mothers like Kumud fantasized about NRI grooms and foreign lands where they could wear jeans with their bindi and so proudly showcased their decorated daughters to prospective parents in law, while yet they swore to not let them go through what they themselves did at the hands of the in laws. Sonless and childless mothers stayed a distance away from new born babies.  The elite watched the poor die in floods. The rich-and-spoilt lured gullible girls into shameful acts. And so …

Binny had pushed out her feelings of inadequacy caused by not being the boy her parents wanted. Brajesh had pushed out his frustrations that arose with the monotony of his existence. Kumud had pushed out her yearnings for a son. Each life operated within the safe, clean niche it had resolved to whittle out for itself.

In such a scenario, where Brajesh sleeps fitfully, equally worried about the market for his bras and his beti, Binny as a heroine could have been a swash-buckling, sword-wielding leader. You know, someone who freed her sex (or herself!) from marital objectification and even from being seen as second to boys. But Rachna’s Binny isn’t that heroine, and as you read you realize the author herself did not aspire to create her that way. Her motivations for falling dupattas and flickering eyelids begin from something as simple as a need to feel wanted by someone, and end there too. 

Binny is happy enough to be the ‘mistress of deception’. She is no trend-setting girl who shatters the glass ceiling and sets an example for pious friends like Manjul. At best, Binny is like a pocket patakha, a girl from a Hindi-medium school ‘who got no attention and resolved to show the boys how dumb they were.’ Aware of her sexuality and sweetly manipulative enough to enjoy her moments of escape, Binny nonetheless has no aspiration outside of what her parents have for her – that of being a married VIP. So, even as she does the unthinkable when the novel spirals to a punchy climax in Delhi, Binny only manages to somewhat scratch the glass ceiling she was born under. 

Women in ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ are in control in their own sweet ways, but it’s more like enjoying the freedom to ride the Scooty till the end of town, and duly turning back home before it got dark. Or wearing the nightgown of your choice but with the big bindi intact. While they fail to become powerful-progressive heroines of novels, they remain successful in reminding us of how they are, with their limited controls and cushioned dreams, from among'st us all. We also correct ourselves as we realize how Manphodganj isn’t just in Allahabad, but in our "modern" cities too.

Band, Baaja, Boys!’ was also about another realization, for me. This is the first book with a heavy reliance on Hinglish that I have read, with even chapter titles all mixed up! My relationship with the English Language is rather like a schoolmarm’s, and from a distance Hinglish was but a hybrid I viewed as foreign to my reading taste. As I saw the characters converse in their vernacular styles, with their geographically unique words (‘bhaak’) and in indigenous accents (blew colour), I sensed how reading them in their language made them flesh-and-blood to me, even when one of them ‘suicided himself’! I could hear them, almost, as one sold bras on the road with ‘Bra…braaaaas….Taaze Braas…Bra le lo’. I could visualize Allahabad going ‘Axe-kyuj me?’ And I could see how many jokes got a punch because how can ‘paisa chaddi ki chor jeb mein hai’ be said any other way. Humour in vernacular and vernacular in humour! 

There’s another thing. It is very difficult to write a language you know correctly so incorrectly that it garners the sought response. Know what I mean? Rachna’s book includes instances of such literal translations as would make you roar with laughter and in turn create a very true-to-life image of the context. For instance, Raja, preparing for the Civil Services, insists on writing letters to his mother only in English - ‘How can I tell Amma but I am telling. I am fixing daughter in law for you. For last six months, I am fixing a girl for you. I am seeing her from my coaching centre window, seeing her fatherji, then also going and seeing her house. Quality of all is good…caste is not the same Amma…but she is having our same caste sanskaars.’ 

I remain in an Open Relationship with Hinglish without fully committing myself to its merits, as yet, because I also see how this book can truly be appreciated only by those who know Hindi, however little.  ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ thus becomes not just a book about the Hindi heartland but also belongs there in its truest sense. In this, and this alone, lies its limitation. 

All of Rachna Singh’s books seem to be inspired from personally experienced cities and situations. The author and the narrator are always one and stories read like memoirs, even when they aren’t. This lends her works a flavour of authenticity hard to ignore, even if it makes you wonder as her regular reader if she is unable to dissociate her personal self from her art. For this book too she admits in typical coinage ‘I belongs to Allahabad and I am proud of it’. After reading what she does with it you see that it is actually Allahabad which belongs to Rachna instead! 

Read it to enjoy its hilarity and its delightful frivolousness. But also read to wonder with Binny ‘Marriz…marriz…why human beens need to do a marriz? Why?’ 

'Band, Baaja, Boys!' by Rachna Singh is an Amaryllis publication, 2016.

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.] 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The beauty and power of Nandita Bose’s ‘Shadow and Soul’

It is not often that you read a book and admire it not just for what it is but also as a part of a larger, ever-growing storm of women’s writing. A book that enjoys its firm individuality thus while simultaneously adding its voice to the generations which came before is Nandita Bose’s ‘Shadow and Soul’. And it does both with immense beauty and power.

Devika is Gautam’s obedient and quiet wife, spinning her world around her son’s meal times and her husband’s exacting nature and busy medical practice, which keeps him away and her alone. Their lives are led with clockwork precision, a routine which the majestic Meera Mansion sees day after day. The interruption walks in in the form of Shaurjyo, a young man on a vacation and half-heartedly looking for direction to his life. Till he meets Devika, that is. The book begins with Shaurjyo’s narration from 2008, five years after this first visit to the house, this time with his film crew. The chapter sensually hints at ‘half-remembered tastes’, mutating dreams and unpaid debts. There is a story behind the story and Nandita makes Devika and Shaurjyo narrate it to us in their own sweet sense of time and space, like a ‘sequence of introspection of pain and the loss within’. All this while real is being recorded as reel, as Shaurjyo and his crew shoot their movie. After all, isn’t that what brought Shaurjyo back to Meera Mansion? 

In the process gets created, in language rich with symbolism and literary tastefulness, a tale of violation and loneliness, responsibilities and obliterated identity and an unhurried awakening towards a sense of self; a reclamation of the myriad aspects of Devika’s self that had vanished. Because marriage and love are two distinct spaces in Nandita’s ‘Shadow and Soul’ and while one self-abnegates here the other empowers!

What is this ‘awakening’ I talk about?

Way back in the 19th century, American columnist Dorothy Dix wrote about how unselfishness in women was a cult. How they wore it ostentatiously, went out of their way to become martyrs. Somewhere around then women were also awakening to the fact that ‘they have been overdoing the self-sacrifice business’ and while a ‘reasonable amount of unselfishness is all right’ (for it could be out of love, really!), the woman who is imposed upon has only herself to blame. For there are ‘middle grounds’ available where they can ‘propose to take their stands’. And even options to fight for their rights! 

So many centuries later we meet Devika as the woman Dorothy was writing about, and we see she has little vestige of personal liberty left. ‘Shadow and Soul’ is Devika’s journey of recognizing this plight, stepping away from it gently, choosing to control her circumstances and in turn awakening Shaurjyo to the inescapability of his life’s truths! 

How it happens?

A few pages into the book and we see Gautam’s ‘invisible hostility masked as teasing’ and Devika’s silence ‘a tentative compromise with reality’ as the norm in the house; the one who spent the money to run it owned it too, and her with it. Over a beautiful scene, where Devika sits sketching a face (because Shaurjyo introduced her to this art) we see the juxtaposition of her married years with the creation of the face on the paper. The more she draws, the more the realization dawns – ‘my silences had become eloquent while his verbiage turned incomprehensible.’ 

The desire to share her solitude gains strength, and the thirst to feel whole trails on its heels. What follows is one of the loveliest book depictions of two people moving towards each other, in mind and body, ‘gripped by an unknown dread … and hope’. With delicious slowness Nandita unravels the turmoil and temptations that mark Devika and Shaurjyo and this ‘interlude of madness’. The impulsive reader will miss the beauty that this hesitant, tip-toeing relationship is full of; of ‘a thousand wishes masquerading as misgivings.’ A patient reader would have ‘tasted the truancy’ of a relationship which resists labels; which is defined by its very undefinable nature! And because it is not events and twists and turns which are moving the story forward at this point, we are left undisturbed to soak it all in, as if we were invisible confidants to the scenes where a sense of well-being comes to these two characters sip by sip, safe-keeping each other’s needs …

In the dark she spoke softer, almost in a whisper. ‘Can we forget for this one night?’
‘What do you want to forget?’
‘Reality. My age. Yours. Our situations. Responsibilities. Right and wrong. Everything external. 
Everything but what we need to mask all the time. What we feel inside.’ 

Something is different five years later, when Shaurjyo returns to Meera Mansion as a lost, angry and misfit man. More worldly, so to say. Faced with truths beyond their helping, Devika and Shaurjyo’s relationship now stands in the very world they made unseen the last time they met. Gone is the delicateness. The escape. Arguments ensue, with Shaurjyo torn with contradictions. But Devika? More aware than ever!

‘I didn’t realize that certain experiences are viewed in isolation such that everything that precedes it is negated. I have learnt only now, the woman’s situation always classifies the act at some level between tawdry and sublime, irrespective of how or what the man felt at that time.’ 

It is this rude return to “worldliness” that makes the dual acts of awakening in ‘Shadow and Soul’ commendably rooted in reality, and Devika a much more meaningful protagonist than simply a woman who comes across an alternative and runs to it. The act of reading this book is involving at not just the level of the senses but also at the level where self-examination and dangerously subversive thoughts exist. Both the power and the beauty of this book, seen in the creation of the central characters, their relationship and the strength of the closure, are also reflected in Nandita’s unmatched expression and style that she uses to tell this story.

Nandita Bose owns her style. 

Shadow and Soul’ is full of the most beautiful expressions of love and longing, thoughts about marriage and relationships and lyrical contemplation into what could be our own life’s situations. The author takes you inside her characters’ mind, till you lose yourself, and gently draws you out with the slightest touch of the fingertips. The chapters, named after works of art, end not on threads which create curiosity to know the story further, but at points of expression which leave a lingering impression. Which go beyond the mere tale and make the telling of it the point! She commands her words thus, reining in or letting gallop the pace of the story, till ‘everything else does not exist. Not even concepts of possibilities and impossibilities.’ Just beautiful language!  

Nandita’s use of symbolism can gladden many a literary heart. There are dragonflies and sketches, the river and chapter titles. And then there is the unmistakable connection between Devika and Meera Mansion. Both ‘properties’ of her husband according to the ‘rules of engagement’. Both have character, a sanctity, age, experience and a routine. Later, Devika and Shaurjyo’s explorations of spaces in the house parallel Devika’s awakening to yet-undiscovered feelings and wants within her. Says Shaurjyo – ‘When I first saw you I didn’t know which was more beautiful – the house or you.’ But it isn’t its beauty alone that gets him back to it as a filmmaker. It’s what he experienced there. Meera Mansion with its river nearby becomes that feminine space which nurtures, feeds, provides and cares, and much more when it is awakened and aware. 

I wonder why I feel no need to include in my review the film actors’ stories or the events which ensue around them. After all, it is a part of the story of this book and not entirely avoidable. But most characters, other than the two central ones, seem lazily drawn bordering on typical. The mutual dynamics of the actors and actresses are neither apparent nor enrich the premise of the main story. If it wasn’t for the blurb I would not even have realized their relationships, yearnings and interests at all! Is this true, or am I too smitten by Devika and Shaurjyo who made dull in comparison all else that came in the book?  

Much about Nandita’s ‘Shadow and Soul’ is reminiscent of Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’, both novels of their times. Like Nandita, Chopin too wasn’t terribly explicit about the mechanics of sex. What her novel showed, like this one here, is how to be free in one’s self and for one’s self, yet remain meaningfully connected to others. Devika’s evolving relationship with her grown-up son, Gaurav, reflects this in the end. However, while Chopin’s Edna reaches her autonomy with a terrible price to pay, Nandita’s Devika manages to integrate her awakened self to the physical and social realities which surround it.  Because Devika knows, what Edna in her times probably could not, that ‘we have the prerogative of self-determination.’  Where intentions are explicit because of action, and human agency far superior to mere Fate, or even suicide following a destructive solitude...

How difficult it is to write a review of a book you loved! First, I could not begin. Then, I was besotted with countless resilient echoes of women writers who added their voice to the immortal feminist discourse. And now, I struggle to conclude my thoughts about Nandita Bose’s ‘Shadow and Soul’. Devika believed ‘Moonlight and paintings are dreams. Reality is stark. Maybe it is tough too. But in the end, that is all there is, all that endures.’ This book will endure that test of time, for like good literature, it draws from and depends on shared forms and representations of experience – yours and mine, our shadows and our souls. 

'Shadow and Soul' by Nandita Bose is an Amaryllis publication, 2015.

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A mixed call on 'Curtain Call'

My feelings for ‘Curtain Call’, 20 short stories compiled and edited by Rafaa Dalvi, are mixed. Juicy apples and bland oranges don’t mix. It’s true that most anthologies with works by first-time authors tend to swing between the good and the average, thus. That they introduce us to new writers and fresh writing is an undeniable benefit, as is reading some memorable stories! While both these positives hold true for this multi-genre collection, what is also noticeable is that the editor’s claim of only ‘quality writing’ making the cut rings hollow a few stories into the book. 

Good things first! Eight stories stood out for me, for reasons unique to each. 

The Stage Leads   

His Leela’ by Karthik begins with a man snapping at everything that is amiss around him, while his wife finishes off the household chores to escape to college. ‘Do you have no respect for your husband?’ he bellows. We watch the wife closely. We feel her silence, her submission, her patience. But only until Karthik turns the lens towards her husband - the brooding man who stands looking at a dark tower he ‘resented deeply’. The wife is forgotten, as the reader is welcomed into his innermost recess – where a past of unfulfilled dreams gnaws at his insides. Where his misery stems from. And which he habitually uses to repel people and animals. And then suddenly, Leela walks in, becomes ‘his Leela’ and unknowingly turns this couple’s lives around. From what seemed like the picture of many homes at the start to one which ends on a beautiful note affirming a different kind of friendship and love, Karthik’s story is written with much sensitivity and understanding. It removes the curtain from the mundane, scratches the surface of human bitterness and shows us how hope to feel new and see oneself anew always exists.   

If ‘His Leela’ is like a slice of our middle-aged lives, one hopes ‘Office Visit’ by Bruce Memblatt is just a bad, though very creative, dream! Short snappy sentences and microscopic details introduce us to Rosie, a twelve year old girl who is sitting before Gloria, the school therapist. Rosie’s ‘obviously rare maturity’ patiently discussing ‘the futility of it all’ hints at something mysterious. Whispers about ‘old souls’ and ‘old bones’ pique curiosity to dangerous levels. Till Gloria screams – ‘How are you possible?’ and we scream with her. Cruel in his quick pace and without letting the fantastical grip loosen around our necks, Bruce manages to suffocate his readers with the events in the room which follow this ‘cosmic typo’, this … Rosie. You’re left asking – Was Gloria herself in need of therapy? Did this really happen? What did?! And you know this was a story well-told, that’s what it was!

The Lifeless Living Sculpture’ by Bhavya Kaushik is different. It involves you with its intensity, saddens with its beauty and leaves you floating in an ocean of interpretations. A sculptor manages to create ‘a physical manifestation of my own thoughts, my obsession’ till the lifeless woman starts living! What follows is like a lover’s monologue – on yearning, obsession, patience and sacrifice. If you can ignore the ‘moral’ at the end of the story, this piece becomes an introspection into the relationship between an artist and his art, the pleasure and hope of creating and the despair that sets in when the work is ready; Ready to belong to the world as an entity in itself, and not just to the artist, who is by now left with nothing but empty hands and a heavy heart. 

Cooking up a Storm’ is a well-written story by Shawn Pereira, which draws you in from the word go. Meticulous detail, regular doses of suspense and no overt reliance on a twisty closure! That it is about the Italian Mafia made it run the risk of wallowing in images borrowed from cinema. But it doesn’t! Salvatori, who seems to have had his cook, the narrator’s father, killed is the object of the son’s revenge. So the son steps into Salvatori’s kitchen, serves ‘succulent meat’ and by a horrid turn of events, well, cooks up a storm. In just over four pages the author shows the many layers of truth and lies which powerful families live with, the assumptions their every action comes shrouded in and most importantly, the oft-ignored sensitivity and humanity that lies within.  

The most delightful pair of characters in the book are the two boys in the story ‘Boys will be boys’ by Dr. Roshan Radhakrishnan. All misgivings about feeding stag stereotypes are forgotten in loud guffaws as we see the incorrigible Renjith’s persistent ‘fatherly tone’ to make his colleague Sunil reveal the ‘private’ details of his date night. Their relationship, endearingly portrayed through jokes and hyperbolic references to cartoons and kings, paints an enviable camaraderie while yet reflecting on the wide mental canvas of the author. You want to read further because it’s super fun, and later because there is strip-poker happening too. In the end it’s Roshan who wins the hand! 

Sharath Komarraju’s ‘The Sitarist of Palem’ is not just one of the best-written stories of the anthology but also complex in its plot and subsequent multi-genre interpretation. It also stands out as a piece where context and setting are characters in themselves, with ‘Palem certainly needing cleansing’, adding to the whispers of conversion, Christianity and the eerie charm of something secret. A women’s wellness centre, run by Sister Agnes, is at the heart of the story and Lata, a mysterious overgrown girl reaching there one night, the pivot. What unfolds is at once reminiscent of human violence and yet has an unearthly, macabre feel to it. Says Lata - ‘Yes, what am I? What am I, woman? I was a woman five days ago, until you gave me that sitar to play. Now what am I?’ till the goosebumps on your hands feel like scales. This story plays with your mind and leaves you struggling for answers. 

The Last Rock on which the Universe Collapsed’ by Siddhesh Kabe is a highly inventive story which concludes with infinite profundity. It propels you into the future of space exploration with zany instruments but begins where ‘the most accurate frequency for a decoupling motor was calculated by an uneducated 13-year-old’. The author beautifully paints Capt. Anant Mahajan’s lonely life in space, whose only mission is seeking out ‘something … or someone’. The reader is soon suspended on an upside down motionless mountain, with a cabbage patch and a forgetful old man who confirms ‘God? That is good, an old concept, older than creation … and no, I am not God.’ This story transports you into its world with its creativity and opens itself to many light years’ worth of interpretation.  

Suresh C has to have been either a Manager, or one of those his Manager managed, to have written this very fun and true-to-life ‘Office Games’. With a unique sense of humour and well-fleshed out characters, the author writes about Arup, that young man from your own office with no fancy degree but a whole lot of grit, crawling his way upwards. Why? Because the girl he loves has a father who wants him ‘to double my salary overnight’. Beyond the amusing events of the story, and an unexpected revelation at the end, is a poignant sentiment. Of how weddings come with T&C and aspirations get killed by others’ expectations. Where parents may be ‘inflamed haemorrhoids’ but you cannot let them down. Where slimy imps like Piyush will sabotage your promotion. And where bosses often cannot discern how a cow citing experience of chewing its cud for 10 years cannot really run a dairy farm! 

Three other stories in ‘Curtain Call’ came in a close second, if you may. 

In the Second Row

A Crimson Affair’ by Rafaa Dalvi is a murder mystery with Birbal in the lead. Imagine lending your story to historical characters and ‘owning’ them, by endowing them with real and imagined traits. I liked the idea and also the simplicity at the heart of the mystery. It’s the telling that lacked in grip and finesse. ‘My Fair Husband’ by Renu Sethi is about a couple who ‘somewhere in the safe confines of their heart enjoyed the arguments’ they always get into. It’s a very real, endearing portrait of marriage, even after the husband dies and becomes ‘even more painful than before’. It’s a pity the events seem borrowed from the very Hollywood movie mentioned in the story. ‘Agent W’ by Rahul Biswas is a suspenseful and well-written story about senior RAW officers, moles and patriotism which is ‘no less injurious to health’. The narration is tight and the end surprising. But points in the story remind you of the many movies made on the subject. After all, how many of us can really know how RAW works, if not from the silver screen?

All other stories can be shoe-boxed together, according to me. They are for readers who primarily like twists in the end rather than the turns used to get there. Which is to say, the end defines the story for them, not how they got there. Such stories do not adequately involve the sensibilities of some readers. They do not linger longer than a gasp. Short-term entertainment, quite typical, often predictable, but then who is to say we don’t need that?  Here are those which cater to readers looking for a quickie.

In the Wings

Vivek Banerjee in ‘Mahua’ takes us into the thick jungles of Chattisgarh, for a survey for building  a dam on River Indravati. But the story is flat and predictable, and very problematic for ‘using’ Mahua the way it does.  An opportunity lost! ‘Mistaken Identity’ by Deepa Duraisamy is about two characters who meet over a train journey. While the author successfully manages to draw us into their relationship, typicality and predictability mar it. ‘Time after Time’ by Aniesha Brahma begins on a note of sibling love and ends on a supernatural one. But there’s much more that can be done with it. ‘Ablaze Within’ by Sanhita Baruah held the promise of showing us an unforgettable portrait of a prostitute. But while Razia’s stand at the end of the story makes you applaud, the story simply reinforces stereotypes through copied imagery.

Reminiscence’ by Mehek Bassi has a strangely nonchalant protagonist in search of an old man. Poorly executed where a story there was none, it even ends with a page-long moral. ‘Ookleeboo’ by Diptee Raut seemed so cute it made me wonder if a child wrote it, or a mother narrated it. But neither the conversational style nor the invention of Ookleeboo save the story from seeming under-developed and incomplete. ‘Another Chance’ by Ketaki Patwardhan is a very short story which explores the theme of ‘what if?’ time could be turned back? Again, diluted by predictability. ‘FLAMES’ by Amrit Sinha captures the innocence of school crushes. But while on the one hand his school-going characters are naïve to a fault, on the other they mouth (Amrit’s?) most profound takes on love and life. Contradiction, just like with the boy's abruptness in the final scene. 

Out of all the stories, it is ‘The Princess Bride’ by Ekta Khetan which remains the weakest link. The theme of a married woman ridden with self-doubt and thoughts of betrayal was a lovely one. Sadly, it fails miserably not just the idea of a short story but even the language it is written in. All stories in the book have their own grammatical problems, with fingers pointing at a lazy editor. But to print this piece full of appalling mistakes makes the editor a criminal! Usages like ‘gasped a breath’, ‘asleep off in his arms’; vagaries like ‘sleeping in absolute realm’, ‘work upon her intimacy with him’; mistakes like ‘them’ for single objects, ‘couldn’t help but got carried away’, ‘this ups and downs’, ‘gape of the neck’ and similar others turn readers into teachers. 

And so I think aloud ... A badly written story not just makes the reader feel cheated by robbing her of an otherwise okay experience but also does disservice to other writers in the collection, who have attempted and succeeded in delivering works which at least entertain. Of course, it all points to a larger malaise. The hurry to be published, the insistence that ‘simple is good’ and ‘complex overrated’, that rules of language are for the Queen alone and a lie readers and reviewers tell each other – that grammatical errors don’t interfere with the reading experience. Well, if they don’t then they should! Perhaps then the 'quality' we seek, as writers and readers, will be within reach. 

Rafaa Dalvi intended well to compile this anthology, give new writers an audience and introduce readers to some good writing and promising authors. He did all that! But we cannot ignore the lack of critical eye with which it has been done. ‘Curtain Call’ will find its readers, no doubt. Those for whom a book is an open-and-shut case, where characters needn’t involve them, trouble them, challenge them or stories be unforgettable in their layers, novelty and style. Some prefer that momentariness of relationship with their reading while others want books to remain open long after they have been read and shelved. Most stories in this anthology are for the former, not the latter.

'Curtain Call' by Rafaa Dalvi is a Half Baked Beans publication, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the editor. Views are my own.]

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Anya’s Lyric by Nikhil Kumar

I was born because of one man’s inability to read.

With these lines opens Nikhil Kumar’s ‘Anya’s Lyric’. If the gorgeous cover image couldn’t grip you with curiosity enough, these lines do. Not just with curiosity, though. Notice how in just a blink you have been welcomed into an intimate world by an ‘I’ who perhaps will tell all, beginning right from why that ‘I’ was born. The ‘I’ wants you to listen. The ‘I’ has a story. And you are already an audience even before you said yes. 

Nikhil could not have begun his book better. Everything that this petite book impressed me with is contained in its opening lines. The causality behind events which drive the story; the characters ordinary yet significantly identifiable by a singular trait; the narration personal, heartfelt and sad. Like this man and his ‘inability to read’, who is nameless yet has played a pivotal part in giving birth to none other than our narrator - Anya.

Anya? ‘A girl who couldn’t understand her actions’. You know, a ‘special girl’ who needed ‘a different kind of education’ along with the other ‘retarded kids of school, social rejects, all of us.’ This story is Anya looking back to those times when her ‘brain was incapable of grasping threads of reality and logic … Back then (when) it was scary’ as a grown-up who is only partially out of her ‘condition’ now because of…

Because of. Causality.

The relationship between cause and its effect is the defining aspect of this story. Rather, all the many stories within this story, plaited neatly into one. ‘Anya’s Lyric’ is a collection of fast-moving, very gripping events happening to an array of characters, with the various threads eventually and sometimes surprisingly crisscrossing each other. Like synapses in the brain! Those points of meeting, often between unrelated characters or unconnected events, help stitch Anya’s story into one patchwork quilt. Very symbolic of how a ‘special’ mind works and talks, wouldn’t you say? Trying to maintain eye contact but almost always failing to. Trying to converge to and thus convey one idea but through many, not entirely insignificant, diversions. 

No surprise then that the story in ‘Anya’s Lyric’ relies heavily on coincidences, to the extent that patters, as if predestined, appear. Nothing is as it seems, or won’t be a page later. But it was all meant to be, one starts believing. And Nikhil Kumar is cruel! He hurtles the story forward. With no breathers and intrigue a constant companion, the reader finds herself guessing what will happen next. 

What is happening? Disruptions. The well-established routines which each character had before are shorn of all comfortable predictability with a simple ‘but that day’ or ‘at the precise moment’ or ‘this had never happened to him before’ … leaving the attentive reader reading more attentively. These disruptions not just move the story ahead but also spell trouble. Like for the postman with the pink letter, who suddenly finds himself doing what he was not supposed to be doing. Suddenly. A Godot-esque meaninglessness and madness ensue. A sense of eerie providence envelopes all the lives bumping into each other, and not just Anya’s life – conceived on an odd day and born on a strange day too. 

Anya’s story, like the many others which meet it, is replete with a dreariness – a primal monotony of sadness featuring men and women we see every day; people on the road, in the fruit market, along railway lines, in temple queues, ‘dreaming of a better life’. Which makes the characters ordinary. Yet, Nikhil doesn’t let them enjoy their facelessness. By endowing each with a story of his/her own which in turn feeds his protagonist’s story, the author gives them a spotlight which an onlooker at a red light doesn’t care to. A lot of them have no names but most of them have been given something which makes them momentarily stand out in our universal studio of reality. We may only know them as ‘the woman with the mole on her left cheek’ or the man who had ‘never gotten greedy’ or ‘the pot-bellied man’ or ‘the boy with a twisted leg’ but we have been shown their lives and minds. Enough to make us realize they are products of the filth in our own backyard. In their hatred and crimes, their superstitions and greed, and their love and longing they are very real!

Of course, among all of them Anya is special. She has been given a voice. She narrates her own story. Now, when you begin reading you notice how Anya is a little girl struggling to make herself understood to the world. But, why does she come across as so articulate to us? Is this an author contradiction? Is it because she is hiding her clear head from those around? Or, is the story a looking- back, from a wiser point of view? When you are convinced it’s the third, you start noticing her clinical, disjointed way of receiving the gravest of situations in her life. 

‘Three important things happened to me on the twenty-ninth of February, the year I turned sixteen: I fell in love, my father died, and I fell out of love.

The matter-of-fact tone makes you sad. Her not knowing how to react right makes you see the terribleness of her situation. And yet you see beauty in all her staccato sadness. She keeps you close. Much like a lyric, her words are heartfelt, even when she is a ‘filthy girl, almost a woman, sitting in the mud and dirt and playing with sticks and stones’, ignorant in her derangement. She confesses to us how ‘I try to remember my story as best as I can’, so we know some things may not be as they seem to her. But then again, that’s the sentiment running below the complete story of ‘Anya’s Lyric’, all along. Of invisible eddies of fate becoming whirlpools and subsuming lives…

The role of language in portraying Anya’s mind was an important one. Even keeping all the stories tight and cleverly connected required craft (and craftiness). Nikhil Kumar has managed both well. Sometimes he’ll just show without telling, leaving the reader loitering around, guessing. At other times, he’ll revel in the repetition of words over the course of long sentences. 

In a forgotten part of town, where it was dangerous for respectable people to wander, stood a forgotten, derelict building, concrete-grey and falling apart at the seams, on the second floor of which was a forgotten apartment with a dirty blue door which had a Bugs Bunny sticker stuck on it by some forgotten soul, inside which, on the far room on the right of the long corridor, the man who smelled like milk just finished raping a forgotten thirteen year old girl who wore braces on her teeth.

Forgotten, and the author’s insistence to not let us forget. Similarly, ‘insignificant’ on page two is repeated so many times you realize those things are anything but insignificant. Phrases like ‘as he did each morning’ reinstate the idea of a routine, only to be broken a line later. Anya harps on the word ‘underdeveloped brain’ to show how acutely aware of it this protagonist is. Not a speck of dust or a hue of colour evades Nikhil’s eyes, and scenes are created visually though without extra embellishments. The end of every chapter leaves a thread dangling or a reader reaction unattended. 

There are a couple of episodes in ‘Anya’s Lyric’ which work well as back stories but in themselves are not very unique, and rather predictable. Thankfully, they are few and far between. But a graver problem appears when you are nearing the end of the book. Somewhere around there Anya appears to have gained clarity of thought, access to good vocabulary like ‘endorphins’, and sane responses to reality. It is too sudden to not ask – how come? Charitable feelings towards another girl in the book and a love angle with one of the boys also seem sudden in the last few pages. The book ends itself hastily, with an enigmatic scene in a shack on a beach, highly interpretative in all its vagueness and mystery but lost in effect if seen for just what it is.   

Anya confesses how ‘people are strange and I don’t understand them’. Nikhil Kumar writes this book to understand those very people, to present their stories within stories, wrapped in an all-encompassing connectedness that none of the characters can escape. This book is like ‘that part of town where the social rejects make their home’. You see how everyone is significant, yet no one is. How depravity is universal yet misery individual. And also how while ugliness is a constant in this needy-greedy world sitting on a social fabric full of holes, special souls like Anya just ‘sang my song through it all’. 

It is Anya’s Lyric, after all, and it must be heard.   

'Anya's Lyric' by Nikhil Kumar is a self-published book, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]  

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Once, as a Paying Guest in Delhi University

I came to New Delhi for my Bachelor’s Degree, as a wide-eyed girl who had miraculously got admission in Lady Shri Ram College. The heart was beating like it had already got free entry into the hip and newly opened The Sugar Factory next door. Or received a proposal from the dark haired Darcy himself! The head was more cautious in its celebration. Delhi was the size of a Kingdom as compared to my home hamlet. One lady in The Doon Club had told me it’s full of cheats, cheap women and madmen. ‘Be careful, beta. You know what you need to guard.’ And she had looked at my belt. My own main worry was grades. LSR inspired and thus expected excellence. And being a hard-working, above-average girl may no longer be enough to hold my own.

But what pooped completely what was a half-party anyway, was the fact that I did not make it to the college Residence Hall. Utni bhi achhi rank nahi thee, I imagined Belt Lady (from above) telling her Bingo friends. I had to look for a PG accommodation. My father was silent as a mountain, and as supportive. Only the best had to be picked. Safe. Comfortable. No compromises! That another girl from Dehradun had booked one in National Park, right behind LSR, was enough to judge the book by its marble floor and bathroom tiles which no other PG offered for miles. Three months’ rent was paid and a two-seater booked. Diamond fingers pointed us to the various facilities which were being offered to the ‘girls who are like my own daughters’, as my parents and I followed our PG aunty much like Pip did Miss Havisham. 

Alas! Soon enough it was evident this aunty had three daughters and no room for more. All promises made to parents-with-wallets started dying till they became invisible like the rajma in the gravy. That is, before the gravy ran out completely for those girls reaching the PG late. Just plain white rice in the common room, followed by jam with Parle G in the room. Room? A third bed had been shifted in with a girl on top. Now we three slept so close we could share one quilt. After all, where was the cupboard space to hold three separate ones anymore? Where will the books go? And reams of notes? Cold drinking water would often run out, specially during exams, but never for aunty downstairs. Always positive, she would instead show us the 6 pairs of shoes she got for nothing from the sale at CP. We girls would be torn between requesting for a cold water bottle, or asking for the shoes! 

If life inside the PG wasn't exactly comfortable or conducive to studies, the walk to and from college was downright unsafe. With a shady Hotel V next door and a desolate nallah with pants-down men hissing and pissing inside, it wasn’t for nothing that the area was called The Rapists’ Paradise. So the “freshers” would wait in college for other PG mates to get done with classes, and then we would walk back together. It never stopped the mucky comments from being passed or random hits-n-touches by bikers, but it softened the blow a bit. Plus, running alone down the road felt worse. It was when a friend walking beside me got dragged by her umbrella down the lane one lonely afternoon, with me helplessly running after a screaming her, that all the leftover mirth and fun, of late-night gossips about who has a boyfriend or who wears a padded bra and whom PG Uncle winked at, went completely bland. Completely.  

I decided that day I needed to get inside that Residence Hall. Thanks to the powdered-milk water and cornflakes I had for breakfast for a year to help put my soul into getting the grades, and my hosteller cousin who pushed me to it, I miraculously made it. I topped the internal assessments! Our Victorian Poetry class was interrupted when a hosteller (always late!) sashayed in with the news. My name was on the hostel list. The whole class cheered like I had battled a crocodile alone. I cried big tears. It had felt exactly like that! 

By the time my graduation was done and I became a post-graduate student of Delhi University, Arts Faculty, with some library-cum-bank-cum-canteen allegiance to Hansraj College, I knew what to expect when I didn’t make it to the Post-Graduate Women’s Hostel in the first go and took up a room in Malka Ganj. Meanwhile, Belt Lady (from above) fainted over her Bloody Mary just hearing the name of the place, and Mill gaya kamra bahut badi baat hai, yaar, remarked a senior in college. 

But was I really prepared, still? 

No beds. Only string cots. Four girls in a room with a broken window which let in not just the bugs and bees but also the hoots of prospective suitors downstairs, night after night. One fridge, but use at your own risk. Eggs vanished as did Pepsi and rosewater. (There were whispers that it was aunty!) One phone charging point and two cupboards standing on bricks. And a rickety gate and staircase keeping us and our Maggi all safely in. Itney paisey mein itna hee, please, the seepage seemed to say. Where was one to go anyway? Any kissa that would happen in a neighbouring PG accommodation and uniformed men would come to make us fill up forms, ask random questions, and leave. That fine day we would see our aunty’s face, properly, without a face pack, even as we thirstily stole secret glances at the chilled Roohafza she served the cops, teasing us right under their noses! 

Only a month of it and so I lived to tell the tale. PGW's latest list was up and I was in! That same afternoon, even before the glue behind the list which was put up was dry, I moved all my worldly belongings to its D-Block. One rickshaw, one superman ricky-bhai, one kilometre and 50 bucks later I breathed. 

All this was more than a decade back. I am that much older today, and enough to acknowledge that whatever problems beset students in their life at the university also shape them. Chisel them. Give them extra layers of hide for survival, stomachs of steel and a confidence to ‘manage on our own’ where once we were like deer in the headlights. It is only when the shit starts flowing out of the pot to enter your room, and there’s no water in the taps for two days, that you scream the loudest scream. To ask for what is right, and your right. That's exactly what's making news today and reading which made me write this.

Girls protesting against regressive and discriminatory hostel rules, rallies against the lack of basic facilities in colleges and fee hikes are headlines. Even though I read about them on a chair far removed from the broken, shared ones I studied on, I cheer and support these students’ demands wherever I sit. I applaud groups like ‘A Room of my Own’, trying to get accountability in the PG business. And I respect that they found their voices, which are only getting braver by the day. You see, it's not just about 'managing on your own', somehow adjusting. College is about finding your wings for life. And nothing should come in the way of that!   

I wish I were still a student of Delhi University. This would be my postcard to the VC. One among the 10,000 which reached him recently.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Nature and its fruits. And Love?

I just finished reading today’s newspaper. The Delhi Development Authority has decided to throw open its fruit orchards to the public. Orchards of mango, guava, ber, jamun, mulberry and star fruit will now become public spaces, with lights, jogging paths and adequate security measures. The entry to DDA’s 18 orchards will be free, thus encouraging people to come and connect with nature and its fruits. 

Nature and its fruits? 

I close my eyes and imagine... 

Hundreds of mango trees stand pregnant with fruit in front of me. The sun is sweating to somehow reach the undergrowth. To touch it. To nourish it. Here and there, in those yellow patches, I spot fruit flies drunk on juice. They are dancing around plump mangoes which have fallen, as if hungry to be consumed, so ready they are! My nose smells grass and moss and bark. My ears hear the bees, the parrots, the falling fruits and also those faint whispers when the wind meets the leaves, making them shiver with an ‘I love you. I love you so much, Meenu’.

Wait, who said that? Is someone there? I see a red stone bench, a little in the sunlight and a little in the dark, as if yet to make up its mind to show or not to be seen. A boy and a girl sit huddled there, as if they were one. Someone is sobbing. Lovers, of course! Lovers professing love, discussing love, feeling love. Just the trees hear them. Only the mangoes understand. And none of the parrots can repeat their secret passion to the big, bad world of honour and blood … 

Nature and its fruits. And love.

I walk up to my book shelf and neck bent, finger the spines. 

Kalidasa’s ethereal Sakuntala, in a bark-garment, walks in the forest of her hermitage. Her girlfriends tease – ‘With you beside him the mango looks as if wedded to a lovely vine.’ King Duhsanta, spying on Sakuntala’s beauty, is smitten. He sees ‘how her lower lip has the rich sheen of young shoots, her arms the very grace of tender twining stems, her limbs enchanting as a lovely flower.’ 20 pages later there is an invitation to share the bench, if there ever was one, as Duhsanta says – ‘O girl with tapering thighs! … out of kindness, you offer me a place on this bed of flowers sweet from the touch of your limbs, to allay my weariness.’ She blushes with fire, he burns with it and her friends excuse themselves and leave. Love happens. Marriage follows soon after, but alas, it belongs not to the sylvan, fertile surroundings but to the world of the court, and its many laws. Many androcentric laws. About purity of roots, ‘varna’ and ‘uninterrupted succession’. And a woman who is ‘never free to do as I please’.  

I see a red stone bench … a boy and a girl sit huddled there, as if they were one. Someone is sobbing.

To lush regions of harmony, spiritual health, love and fancy, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ belongs. Fancy, did I say? Yes. Make-believe! The woods, so symbolic of wilderness, are seemingly away and apart from the city-bound civilization. The traditional pastoral festivities release the escaped lovers’ energies for the continuity of life, but which in the end, sadly, are held in check. How? The city has its rules for the formal bonds of marriage. Very strict bills one needs to fit! This ‘contagious fog’ of terms and conditions can creep through the world of shady trees and reach the bench … brutal quarrels, a deranged lover, predation, jealousy, shame and disgust ensue to kill … ‘And therefore is love said to be a child because in choice he is so oft beguiled.’ Therefore.

I see a red stone bench … a boy and a girl sit huddled there, as if they were one. Someone is sobbing. 

I suddenly remember what this guy in Siddharth Chowdhury’s ‘Patna Manual of Style’ saw in Indraprastha Park, New Delhi. In his words – ‘I heard some voices from the covered pavilion that is right in the middle of the park. I thought I heard a faint female shriek for help … I found a young couple on the floor, the girl still in her school uniform, with her nylon zebra-striped chaddi and salwar around her knees and the boy bare-assed on top of her. Without thinking of consequences I ran in to save the girl and gave the boy a tremendous kick. The girl started saying ‘please, please, please’ and the boy … tried to run away… but not before some choice slaps from yours truly.’ He was just a goodly confused passer-by. No. He wasn’t a cop with a baton. But he could have been a cop, or someone serving the opaque and impermeable code of morality, of which one size fits all, and flouting which leads to such ‘dheeli chaddis’. 

I see a red stone bench … a boy and a girl sit huddled there, as if they were one. Someone is sobbing. 

The newspaper flutters in the fan’s wind to draw me back. I read yet again.

The Delhi Development Authority has decided to throw open its fruit orchards to the public. Orchards of mango, guava, ber, jamun, mulberry and star fruit will now become public spaces, with lights, jogging paths and adequate security measures. The entry to DDA’s 18 orchards will be free, thus encouraging people to come and connect with nature and its fruits. 

Nature and its fruits. And love? 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Home-searching with HDFC RED

Once upon a time, looking for a house meant phone calls followed by visits to family friends and long-forgotten relatives in the new city. Could they please ask around their neighborhood if anyone was looking for an educated, decent family with a steady-income to buy their property in Delhi, for instance? If yes, what luck! If no, it meant riding pillion on a scooter with broker after broker, each of whom was ‘your most trusted option’ and ‘like a brother in a big, disorganized city’. After scores of lists of areas and specifications and requirements such frustration and exhaustion would set in as would make you want to live in a cave! 

Now, if you are a parent who thinks the best for your child, the process of house-hunting acquires two more aspects. One, the child as a physical presence while you hop from one prospective abode to the other. And two, specific features and facilities the house needs to have for the child’s safe and happy stay and which need to be ensured. So, you don’t just want the experience to be less physically involving and more time efficient, you also want the end-result to match your parental idea of a home. 

As a parent, there is much that I want to ensure my new home to have. Room and ample space that the kid can call his own, lots of windows for good ventilation and daylight, undisturbed power and water supply, some greens to expend that extra energy, proximity to schools and hospitals, overall safety and security … the list goes on. Children have schools to go to, birthday parties to attend, camps to learn extra-curricular activities in and television to watch, why not! And so as a parent I also want a process of house-hunting which doesn’t hamper my child’s routine and well-being.

If you too wish for a stress-free one-stop shop where you can just look for a property, with informed guidance, efficiency and meticulous organization, check out HDFC RED!  

HDFC RED is a home discovery and buying portal and app for home seekers to access all information relevant to every step of the home buying process. Users are given the tools to enable a convenient and hassle-free home search experience, from a database of over 24,000 types of properties across 23 cities! So if you are looking for row houses in Punebuilders in Bangalore, apartments for sale in Hyderabad,or even land for sale in Chennai, this is where you need to be.

The HDFC RED Mobile App, available for both iOS and Android phones, gives you the freedom to browse on the go their comprehensive and unbiased database! 

The ‘Priority Search’ feature is designed to help users prioritize their preferences. Which means, for parents like myself who make lists the length of epics, it logically organizes things for us. How? 
One can view properties in an order indicating the extent of relevance, with results even personalized to each user. So, each property has a relevance score and feedback mechanism, which is tailored according to the priorities identified by the home seeker! 

It’s interactive and simple to use, with property images, lists of amenities in and around the house (like schools, train stations, hospitals) and even floor plans and approximate EMIs duly mentioned. Using HDFC RED also makes sense for it gives each property a ‘Relevance Score’ based on our priorities, shows you special deals available in your city and even comes with a home loan calculator

All this simply an app download away. No more settling for the second-best, because you ran out of patience or time. No more drowning in incorrect information or being swamped by too much of it. And no more riding pillion. Let HDFC RED become your ‘brother in a big city’! 

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Yama’s Lieutenant in Anuja Chandramouli’s world

Anuja Chandramouli’s latest book, ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’ begins on a note of sibling love. Agni and Varuna are burying their pet goldfish over thoughts of separation and death. ‘I will never leave you!’ promises Agni, at the end of an innocently poignant scene, making Varuna happy. Little do the twins know (or the readers realize) how swiftly their promises will be thrown into a world beyond their imaginations, with mysterious events and creatures who will change their lives, and even deaths, forever. 

Agni Prakash, languishing in depression after Varuna’s death, is summoned to be Yama’s lieutenant. What he thought was a strange dream becomes a stranger job – that of sending the inhabitants of the thousand hells, who have escaped to ruin the three worlds, back to the torture chambers. While fulfilling a mandate he little loves, he chances upon a manuscript his sister wrote before she died. It’s the story of the celestial twins Yama and Yami, re-told! Connections and coincidences start appearing, as we read about Agni’s deadly journey and also the chapters from Varuna’s manuscript. They form two distinct plot-lines in the book, ‘taunting with veiled hints of the things they concealed’. That is until Agni figures out how they both trail towards the epicenter of an action-packed climax.

Fantasy, yes. And also reality. There is much of both in ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’. Which one wins our hearts?

The real and the fantastical primarily merge at the level of the story, where mere mortals are given magical powers and powerful roles to play. They don’t just coexist but are interlinked tight! Suspend all disbelief. The world in 'Yama’s Lieutenant' is not for those ‘corrupted with the taint of science and logic’. It is about ‘magic which will reflect the heart and soul of the wielder’ and which will always ‘extract a price’. Out of mythology and arcane lore come creatures which exist beyond rational realms, like fiendish Narakamayas and Hatakas, necromancers like Naganara, guardian angels and benevolent goddesses, all making the real human world of Agnis and Varunas their own. How? By spreading evil, or contrariwise giving destitute orphans like Minothi ‘powers’ for good. 

Much creativity has gone into making the many fantastical scenes in the book come alive. The names of places are naughtily close to real places but their descriptions so magnificent that they are not just a pleasure for readers who appreciate good language but also successful in making the readers become a part of them. From the beautiful to the macabre, from descriptions of hell to idyllic palaces and icy caves, fantasy in the book is a visual treat which draws you in! Epical, really!

It is because of this power of fantasy that all coming-back-to-reality scenes in the book - of big cities, riots, murders and suicides - feel like a sudden leap. While some readers may see that jump as a not-so-seamless merging of fantasy and reality, others would commend the author for making us get lost in a highly invented world as if it were the only reality we knew. While Anuja has also made her book pregnant with the realism of (and subtle social commentary about) lower-caste reservation riots, honour killings, mob frenzy, superstitions, labels like dark-slut-witch and even the evil of child-trafficking, we cannot help but see ‘Himsa and Adharma (which) have taken control of the world’ not as concepts from the human world but as ugly monsters from mythology that now walk the earth. 

Of course, there’s Agni to deliver us from such evil! But then, is he the hero of this story? Alone? 

At the beginning of the book Agni is a lanky, long-haired depressive who had ‘trouble articulating exactly what it was that he had been chosen to do’. Except, he knew that time was always short, and ‘he was no longer flirting with death so much as consummating his union with it,’ as he went about the world making people pay the price for their actions. By the time he begins battling the dark army the intoxication of magic starts making him feel ‘like a god on earth and more’, who not just captures but destroys! 

However, while Agni may have been gifted Yama’s danda and the title of this book, the powerful women in the book outshine his valor, for this reader, and lend the book a unique touch. Most women who play a part in the story rise from states of oppression and suppressed desires. Sanjana, Surya’s consort no less, frees herself from the bondage of being used and abused. She turns into a horse so she could roam the three worlds, wild! There’s Minothi, born to a mother who ran for days to save her child ‘nobody ever knew how’, who then becomes a pivotal magic wielder in the book, ‘a typhoon of unstoppable destruction’ but who could even ‘nurse a dying tree back to life’. Yami, Surya’s daughter and Yama’s twin, knows that ‘marriage and its attendant horrors are not for me’, neither is having sex with a stranger ‘just because Father promised me to him!’ There are Nitara and Dharami and there’s also Varuna who ends up doing the unthinkable taking all of us by sudden …

The mention of Varu reminds me of another important observation. 

Anuja Chandramouli’s previous books have been what I have called ‘mythology from below’, using delightful wit and satire as a subversive tool to make a social comment by pulling down the gods to the level of humans. ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’ makes you miss that irreverent wit. Yes, Varu’s voice in her manuscript reminds you of classic Anuja-isms (from her previous books) but that’s about all in this department. However, two important aspects from the previous novels do make prominent appearance in this newly-tried genre by this author. 

One, humanizing gods till we cannot tell their fates and plights apart from mortals, and which then also helps twine the two plot-lines together. If foolish humans believe in happy endings, gods ‘are cursed with the knowledge that “forever” is a long time and heaven is not all that it is cracked up to be!’. Both mortals and immortals are shown sharing dreams, dislikes, disastrous habits and set destinies. No wonder then that the sibling relationship of Agni and Varuna mirrors that of Yama and Yami. After all, ‘gods and men alike are always in a state of conflict, either with themselves or with those around them because it is in their very composition.

Secondly, profound ideas discussed or debated in dialogues appearing at important junctures in the book. Anuja’s ‘Shakti; The Divine Feminine had enthralling dialogues on contentious ideas. ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’ may be a poorer cousin in this regard, but it comes with its own share of thought-provoking conversations tucked within. You read you question - Is the author saying a certain divine-deadly ‘madness’ is behind the violence on earth, and not people’s own deeds? That men are but ‘playthings of fate’ or puppets to a sorcerer’s will? Then what about free will, if it is the soul which ‘propelled the individual to the allocated destination’? And if that is indeed true, why does Anuja, in a rather self-contradictory way, blame man for rising to the ‘top of the food chain with a savagery’ in a different part of the book? When Agni bemoans the deaths he inflicts are you looking at a perpetrator of violence or a victim himself? ‘The only thing worse than unanswered questions were the unpalatable, soul-crushing answers.’ So answers we get none, even as we dwell upon the many questions.

What didn’t work? A glossary of mythical names would have helped, at least in keeping the initial chapters less confusing. I found a discrepancy between the barricaded world that Sivagami Math was and the language, slick expressions and even city-knowledge that the women seemed to acquire there, somehow. As an off-shoot of that, how Agni and Minothi go sassy in deadly situations breaks suspense, and thoughts like those of having a bath or losing weight in the necromancer’s cave seem misplaced. Most importantly, while the reader has been privy to Varu’s manuscript throughout, at some points near the climax Agni just admits to having read some important-to-the-plot instructions in her book, when the reader never did. Also, the all but final war that Agni fights, and which the book was preparing us for, seems to be won all too easily.   

When Agni is given the role of Yama’s Lieutenant and told about how mankind will be wiped out at the hands of evil forces, he ‘shook his head in disbelief. He could not help thinking that if he had read such a thing in the pages of a novel, he would have thought it ludicrous.’ The strength of this book is that it is not ludicrous! By marrying reality to fantasy it holds up a mirror to how we live and hate. It provokes us to question free will, ideas of justice, significance of death and the role of violence. It even leaves a lingering message - are we so far gone in our destructiveness that only magic of the most powerful kind can save us now? By the time you finish reading the book, you ask, as Agni does – ‘creatures from the world of fables and mythology! Can it really be possible that they walk among the living now?’ You might catch yourself saying 'It's possible!'

Yama’s Lieutenant’ by Anuja Chandramouli is a Random House India publication, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

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