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? 

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