Saturday, May 05, 2018

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Where book reccos go, I take it from anyone, most of the time. I feel, if someone has been impressed by a book, there must be something about it. Even if I don't end up liking the book, I look at it as an opportunity to get to know the person who recommended it, better. That's how I came across this book. It was suggested by a very young colleague. I grabbed it when I got the chance. A writer I had never read before - Benjamin Alire Sáenz. A genre I had not explored before, Young Adult Fiction. I am not telling you another new aspect because that might be a spoiler.
The story is about a sweet story a young boy, who seeks to unravel various secrets--secrets about his family, about his friend, about his own self as well.
Aristotle is a boy of 15, biding his time being angry with everything and everyone around him. He is angry with his parents for being secretive, at his well-meaning friends for being intrusive, at himself for being a loner. For a young boy, he has the difficult task of walking a fine balance between temper and politeness. He then meets a boy interestingly named Dante, who goes on become his first and only friend and more. Of course, he spends a good amount of time being angry with Dante too for being so nice, happy and himself. How Ari comes to terms with his family, his loved ones, his own  feelings and himself, form the rest of the story. 

We are presented with a set of six beautiful characters. Ari, Dante and their wonderful parents. Each dealing with their own personal issues, yet full of love and warmth. 

Written in simple yet beautiful language, the book explores complex emotions and various aspects of adolescence with gentleness and finesse. It took me back to my own very difficult teenage years. I now know I wasn't alone, because that's a stage when we hardly have heart-to-heart conversations with anyone, I wouldn't have known better. I have made some mental notes for me refer to when it's my chance as a parent. But then like Ari does, it is up to each person to discover himself as life goes. The only thing we can do is, like Ari's parents do is this. Sort out or at least come to terms with our own battles, first creating enough mental space to take a patient look at a blossoming teenager's needs with all the love and care we are capable of.

The storyline might appear one-dimensional to some, even a tad too Utopian but then, I loved it just for that reason. I'd definitely recommend this book to those who never tire exploring various facets of human nature and behaviour. I'm such a person. 
The book is sprinkled throughout with many thought-provoking and smile-inducing lines. Here are some:

"Words were different when they lived inside of you."***
"Poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn't get - and never would get."***
"The problem with trying hard not to think about something was that you thought about it even more."***
"...we're thinking about things that we don't know we're thinking about and those things, well, they sneak out of us in our dreams."

Friday, February 02, 2018

In a Forest, a Deer - Ambai

In a Forest, a Deer is a collection of short stories written by famed writer Ambai, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom. I had been intrigued by the writer with this beautiful nom de plume for a long time. And this book came to me as a Christmas gift from a dear friend.
The book is a collection of eighteen interesting stories. I dived into the stories headlong, deliberately without reading any of the introductory notes. With new authors, I usually like to do the ‘discoveries’ myself. And what a revelation it was! Free of all feminist tropes, these stories are fresh, contemporary and very relevant. These are not stories of wonder-women but regular, everyday women who sparkle in their quiet, mundane existences.

Ambai uses a wide variety of themes and styles. One and Another explores unusual relationships. Vaaganam is a humorous take on the strong desire to own a vehicle, which in turn translates into freedom. Wrestling and Journey 3 have poignant thoughts wrapped in an organza of humour. A Rat, a Sparrow is a fantastic story about a ‘Madrasi’ trying to settle down in Bombay. Ambai walks us through communal tension in Direction and A Movement, a folder, some tears. A Movement… was a very difficult read, despite creative styles and techniques like flashback, an email and even an email attachment. My personal favourite is Parasakthi and Others in a Plastic Box, about the gossamer bonds that weave a mother and her two daughters together. It moved me to tears. Here again, she uses the medium of letters to tell us the story. Forest is perhaps the best example of the brilliant literary spark of this writer. It flits gracefully between mythology and contemporary.  Though all stories have a broad theme, each story delicately spreads out bunches of different thoughts, ideas and sub-themes, just like beautifully set pleats that enhance the grace of a saree.  Ambai’s storytelling has an almost lyrical quality to it, with generous use of images and metaphors.

Ambai’s women are quirky, strong, independent and free, in their own capacities—physically, mentally or at least spiritually. There’s a tiny little story within a story in Direction, called For Lakshmi too, an Adishesha. Read that and you will understand the strength of Ambai’s unbridled imagination. Goddess Lakshmi is tired of sitting at Vishnu’s feet all the time. She is miffed about all the unfairness around her and feels she deserves her own Adishesha too!  I have never read anything quite like it. Another thing I will not forget about the characters is their very Tamil names, not of Goddesses but of nature and human virtues. There is Kumudha, Shenbagam, Thangam, Dhanam, Thirumagal, Chendhiru, Senthamarai and many more. The men have more regular names. 

Every time I read a translation, I stop for a bit to think about the translator. I will say it now and will say it again, translation is one of the most difficult forms of all writing. Lakshmi Holmstorm has done a wonderful job of it in this collection. I don’t know if it was about the translation or if it was because I happen to know Tamil, but I found myself re-translating the lines back into Tamil in my head as I read the few couple of stories. It all settled down beautifully after the third/fourth story and they read like stories originally written in English. A pond filled with lotuses. Each lotus as wide as mother’s lap. Each lotus made up of a thousand, thousand petals is a gem of an expression. I am now curious to find out what it was in Tamil and if it was as beautiful. There’s another place where she says, “as white as white can be” which I am sure was “vella-veleyr” , an adjective peculiar to Tamilnadu. Having grown up listening to such local peculiarities, I never imagined it could be expressed in English so well. What I also like is a neat little glossary at the end of the book and sometimes at the end of a story. The editors have thankfully not messed up the pages with a mosaic of symbols and legends. I am curious to find out why the translator has chosen to use the Hindi word choli to describe a blouse that is worn with a saree. Also why did she choose to spell the musical instrument Veena or Veenai, as Vinai and Vina in some places. Doesn’t Vinai, with the short i sound connote an evil deed? The names of some actors are also incorrect like M T Rama Rao for N T Rama Rao (they got it right in the second instance) and K P Sundarambal for K B Sundarambal. I shouldn’t nit-pick.

I believe that those who’ve been fortunate enough to travel much (by circumstance or choice) stand to gain a wide knowledge of languages, customs, religious practices, quirks of different communities and also become open to appreciate different styles of cuisines and music. Then there are those who learn and develop all of these without stepping out of their zipcode. These are people who read extensively. And if a writer has one or both these opportunities, the writing becomes truly rich. Even while I was reading the stories, Ambai seemed to be doubly blessed thus.  Only when I read her biography after completing the book did I learn that my guess was right. She has travelled much and is a voracious reader. Somehow
, luckily for me, many books I have been reading these days have copious references to music. So does this book. The references range from Raavana’s Kambodhi, Tiruppavai, Andal Paasuram, Bhimsen Joshi to Gangubai Hangal. Oh and she loves talking in detail about food. Be it paruppu thogayal or a Maharashtrian millet roti. The kitchens are not the domains of only women. A character’s father could make a hundred varieties of chutneys. Ambai’s protagonists believe in God but are not god-fearing. They are highly spiritual but not very religious. The ring-side views and the first-person accounts do give a pleasurable intimacy but somewhere at the half-way mark, the mind craves to see a wider canvas. As if the writer/editor read your mind, things begin to get interesting soon.

In a Forest, a Deer is overall, a wonderful compilation of enjoyable and thought provoking stories. A must-read if you are looking at exploring a new ethos, a new voice that is strong and vibrant but not shrill. Will I be right in saying she is India’s (or at least Tamilnadu’s) answer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? While I do my research, I will leave you with some quotes from the book.

Brahmacharya, samsara, vanaprastha and sanyasa—must these all happen at separate times and stages?... Why could they not all be mingled together?

Everything comes down to sruti, getting the pitch right, doesn’t it? We speak of sur, being in tune. Who then is an asur? Not someone with crooked teeth and ten heads, but one who is ignorant of sur. A-sur. Because such a thing as sur isn’t resonating within them, they run away with themselves without subjecting their impulses or their strength or their direction to any discipline. They are not reined in by their sur.
There was another friend who insisted on telling jokes after having downed three pegs of rum. ‘I’m going to act like a Madrasi’, he proclaimed loudly….He laughed at his own performance. Nobody else laughed with him. Vijay went up to him and whispered something. He looked at her and said, grinning away, ‘It was only in fun. I like the temples in Tamil Nadu very much. Then dosa, vada, idli,’ he drawled stressing the ‘d’. “Saniyane,’ she said…Only Amulyo understood what she said.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. What an experience it has been! My first Murakami and I’ve never read anything quite like it. The storyline twines itself around a 15-year old boy, an adorable old man and his equally adorable companion and an enigmatic lady. All of them are in the process of letting go of something and gaining something else in the process. Now, would I classify the book as fantasy, philosophy or something else? I would not get there. There’s no point trying to jam something as fluid as this within the confined spaces of genre. This book, like I said at the beginning, is an experience. I do not venture out to 'review' this book because that would be doing it injustice. I will only share what it did to me. The beginning was like sitting on a flight, venturing on a holiday to a foreign country for the first time. There are mixed feelings of fear and excitement. As I go deeper into the book, I get into a dreamlike state—a feeling of being led by the hand while sleepwalking. I feel the dream makes sense only to me. It might sound vague and meaningless if I relate it to someone. I see beautiful things, feel beautiful thoughts about belonging, memories, metaphors, books and music. I chuckle at the sweet, innocent moments (Nakata’s“Liter ady” and his understanding of idioms). I cringe at the violence and underage sex but thankfully, it is just a dream and I know these events will end soon. Once again there are gentle emotions that envelope me with warmth. At a point, I know the dream is ending, I don’t want it to. It gets exciting. I don’t exaggerate when I say I feel my hands trembling at the turn of each page. I read some parts twice. I don’t want to miss anything. I hear myself saying aloud, “Oh no…” “Kafka, just go.” “Hoshino, please do something.” “Oh damn, it’s him!” And then, it was all over and I wake up with a sigh, unable to think of anything else for the next few hours. I then thought of the author himself. How fatigued, yet exhilarated he must have felt to give shape to all those thoughts and ideas. I must have been something like childbirth itself. Perhaps all authors go through their own struggles, but I felt it for the first time. It takes a lot of strength, courage and brilliance to be able to put abstract thoughts in words.

Interpreting a beautiful dream is as important as the dream itself. So, I think a large part of the credit must go to the translator for putting words into a wonderful order, without disturbing the original pattern. Just like it happens in the book, someday, I’d like to discuss this book with someone—the hidden meanings, the references, the parts that I didn’t quite grasp, parts that made me feel I’m “…not very bright, dumb”. And mull over “the accident” and “the murder”. Thinking about it, how nice it would be to come across people, including strangers willing to discuss films, music, books and even philosophy with us. Now, that would be a dream-come-true for me.

A few passages from the book that I loved:
About first impressions: “…a shadowy smile playing on her lips whose sense of completeness is indescribable. It reminds me of a small, sunny spot, the special patch of sunlight you find only in some remote, secluded place.”

About books: “When I open them, most of the books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages - a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers.”

About parental pressure: “When they're treated like that, children start to crawl inside a shell and keep everything inside. It takes a lot of time and effort to get them to open up again. Kids' hearts are malleable, but once they gel it's hard to get them back the way they were.”

About anger: “Are anger and fear just two aspects of the same spirit?”

About the unsaid: “Putting (the answer) in words will destroy any meaning.”

About memories: “If you remember me, then I don’t care if everybody forgets.”

“Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back. That's part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads - at least that's where I imagine it - there's a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you'll live forever in your own private library.”

The book is full of such gems and I couldn't make note of all of them. But I don’t worry because I know I am going to revisit it one day.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Enigmas and Dogmas

As teenagers, all of us dream of becoming something.

Since the age of 13 or so, I have been in the pursuit of becoming this enigma... the mystery woman that the boys die to get close to, someone who everybody is eager to know about. The woman doesn't talk much, smiles just a little, has eyes that can draw you deep into their dark depths. The woman who will attract you but will never let you come close to her. She will leave your wondering. And she comes with a special brand of beauty and grace.

Today, at 4 decades of existence, I do have Enigma but only on my retro playlist - (even that once famous band of the 90s has now faded into oblivion). The mystery happens when I wonder how I ended up wearing the old pair of jeans when I was actually planning to wear a chiffon salwar kameez, with a chiffon dupatta, chiffon scarf, and chiffon bangles. (Ah! Manish Malhotra and Yash Chopra didn't think of chiffon bangles #LostOpportunity)
Leave alone an enigma, I couldn't even manage to become a lady, that I had dreamt of becoming.

Oh! I did get an anonymous love-note slipped into my desk when I was Class VIII. It said "I love Priya." I should have blushed. Should have acted coy. But what did I do? I let out a loud guffaw and bellowed "Hey who's that?", frightening enough for the anonymous lover to shrink further into anonymity. Well, he wanted an intimate date and all I did was INTIMIDATE. #LostOpportunity

The problem with me is that I can't leave anything to suspense. Anything I feel, I have to express it. Be it love, anger or disappointment. If there is an itch, it has to be scratched, so to speak. (I can't ever imagine Aishwarya Rai scratching.)

The other problem is my compulsive need to talk. If people have been out of touch, I don't wait for them to text first. I do. And then I talk and talk and talk (them actually listening is usually not a prerequisite.) So what's left for them to wonder about? As if that were not enough my gutter mouth can make the husband blush even after so many years.

Oh and those meaningful smiles. I tried. I practiced. Two hours in front of the mirror every day (there were times when I actually had 2 hours of my own for such creative pursuits). Nope. I only ended up with pursed lips and flared nostrils. Well, at least that checks off 'deep-dark' in the list.

For the love of god have I've tried to peck like a hen when I eat with men but what do I do when I have an appetite larger than theirs? So people around me do wonder. Wonder how I did it.

I've been trying to write poetry with a feather-tipped pen but the family tells me to try Stand-up Comedy. Lo karlo baat! I've been trying to grow long, luscious tresses but the girl at the parlour, every time she sees me, she chops off the 3/4th of an inch that took 6 months to grow. She shakes her head and tch-tches "too dry ma'm" (And I'm hoping there are no other hidden references there). Talking about references, I've been subjected to the range - from the extremely rude "Tom Boy" to the more gentle, "gruff voice, good for western music". Well, I've learnt to take all of that with a pinch of chat masala and a peg of whiskey. See, even that's not a lady's drink.

Forget me. Even my lady-parts are not ladylike anymore.
Hey! But I AM sensitive, extremely touchy and hopelessly romantic. Yes, I can't blush but that's okay, I suppose.

So what do I do now? At this ripe age, all I can do is....give up? No! Never! I will try and try and try. Only time will tell if I will end up like Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur or the famous Cuban lady with the Cigar.


Pic Courtesy:
Lorrie Cramer via Flickr

Friday, August 04, 2017

In Love and So Lonely

Relationships don't always break because of differences of opinion. Sometimes, two people much in love with each other can also get very lonely. Each is an individual in his and her own right after all. They do go through their own personal battles.More often than not, it has nothing to do with the lover at all. I guess this happens a lot in this new world, where long, loving glances are not everything.

And it's this loneliness that often becomes the last sigh of a loving relationship. It usually takes either one of them to carefully step away from this dangerous cliff and in the process save the three - themselves, their loved one and their love itself.

This song always brings to my mind this last dangerous precipice that a relationship is in. The girl is risking it all to bring both of them to safe ground.Wow! Never seen anything like this before. And the beauty of the song is that she says she needs him. She doesn't try to get a step above and offer a condescending shoulder. But he is is so lost in his inner turmoil that he only sees the pointlessness of it all. Yet, she doesn't give up. She tries and tries and tries. She says life is sure to be beautiful if you are with me. He says it won't make a difference whether she is with him or not. Life is bound to be as heartless as ever. Listen to the song, it's built just like an argument. His pain makes you want to take him in your arms and cradle him to peace and derive peace for yourself in the process.

I don't have to say anything about the video. It speaks for itself between 3:20 and 4:20. It has captured a moment of intimacy like no other song video has before. 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Boycott: Thums Up or Thums Down?

I have been reading about the boycott of soft drinks by the traders in Tamilnadu.

I strongly believe that carbonated soft drinks with artificial flavouring are no good and completely unnecessary. Yet, I have some questions:
1. If the Coca Cola plant is draining water from Thambaraparani, where do the local brands, Kalimark/Bovonto plant get their water from?

2. Can the government stop all soft-drink manufacture for a while in order to make better use of water resources?

3. What are the actual reasons for the boycott?
Is it because they want to promote national brands in lieu of the foreign ones?
Is it to stop the the depletion of natural resources to manufacture a product that is perhaps not an 'essential commodity'? In that case, won't the local brands also come under that tag?

4. I am imagining an visual of a foreign tourist from say, a Coke guzzling region like the USA. He is touring around Mylapore in the month of June,thrilled with the rich heritage and culture of this 1000 year old neighbourhood. Suddenly struck by thirst, he goes to a shop and asks for Aquafina. Shop-keeper says no. Bisleri. No. Coke. No. Then the friendly shopkeeper offers the tourist fresh, tender coconut water and the tourist takes a selfie with the coconut, the caption on his photo being "I love natural, so real."

Am I being too naive?

5. Okay, another visual. They say foreign companies haven't been setting up shop in Tamilnadu due to bureaucracy. A very resilient investor goes ahead with his plan, brings in his team. Gives them posh houses in MRC Nagar. Takes a while for the expats to settle down. Slowly emails marked 'Personal' go the HR in the HO. "I tried to take my team to a night out in town. By the time we complete work it is 9 pm. By the time I search for a decent pub, it's 10. We take 30 minutes to take in all the teenager crowd, the noisy music. Before we can blink, it's shut down time. We are home by 11:30 p.m. Forget nightlife, forget buying a can of beer to chill at home, it is nearly impossible to even find a can of coke or sprite. Every time I ask my grocer for coke or Aquafina, he politely advices me to get them from the posh hotel nearby. This is getting very inconvenient and demotivating. Please advise." Now, I am being too negative? First-world problems you say?

Like I said right at the beginning, my only grouse against soft drinks is the health reasons and then harmful effect these factories have on the environment.
This post is more about thinking aloud. I need your thoughts and opinions please.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Parenting Dilemmas

A very challenging parenting moment this evening.
Junior wanted to play with a girl, let's call her A, in the apartment who is Junior's on-and-off playmate. She checked on the intercom and A (younger than Junior) said she was busy. Junior let it go but accidentally found out that A was in fact playing with B and C (also Junior's playmates) at her home. 

Junior was almost in tears. I tried convincing her, "Perhaps A wasn't in a mood to play with you..." I said. "...maybe she wants to play with them instead." Junior wasn't convinced and insisted that I ask A about it. 

Dilemma # 1. 

Shouldn't have done that. But I did. I called over the intercom and asked A what she was doing. She said she was doing her homework. I asked her if B & C were with her and she said "No." On asking her again she hesitantly answered that she was actually playing with B and C. I gently told her she could have taken the easier way out by speaking the truth. "You must never tell lies because it hurts people." She responded with a meek 'okay' and I said 'bye' and hung up. Junior called A some names and said she was very angry. I hugged her and said, "It's okay, now that you have called her all bad names, you should be okay in two minutes." (I know I'm being judged for allowing Junior to call people names.)

In less than three seconds the intercom buzzed again. It was A announcing that Junior could "come and play with us if she wants to." 

Dilemma # 2.

Shouldn't have done that. But I did. I said, "I will tell her that but I don't I want to send her. If she still wants to come, she will. But I think you should play with B & C today." 

Dilemma #3.

I turned to Junior, "Baby, let them play today. I don't think you should go today. Come, let's both play." Junior screamed that she rarely gets a chance to play with them as a group. I pulled her close and said "Baby, allow people to come to you and play but never go begging for people to play with you. You must love and respect yourself first." Junior was furious. With me? With A? I don't know. She stormed into the bedroom and slammed the door, only to come out in a minute asking me if I could play with her. We watched a few funny movies scenes on TV (which got her giggling), then went downstairs and enjoyed a good hour of physical play. Her and me. Me and her. 

Backstory: This is not the first time that A has done this. There have been several instances when she has been at home but would get her folks have said she isn't at home or that she's sleeping. Her idea or her family's, I wouldn't know. I've never interfered. There have been many instances when she has come home to play with Junior and we've never turned her away even if we've had guests at home. 

My questions: 
  • I have seen children speaking lies about petty, insignificant things but at what point do they learn to 'avoid' people and resort to lies for doing that? What role does family play here? 
  • I know interfering in the matter of kids is not a great option but how else could I let A know that we actually know the truth? 
  • How do I teach Junior what self-respect is without teaching ego? 
  • Is it okay for me to allow my child to play with someone, be it another child, whose lies appear a step above just childish, innocent white-lies? 
I've been in deep thought. Junior isn't a toddler anymore. She is a thinking person on the brink of her tweens. She doesn't need to know everything but she needs to be told something. Just a 30 minutes before this incident, Junior told me that the snack her grandma prepared needed improvement but grandma might feel sad if she told her so. I  told her that it was okay to give her feedback. As long as she is gentle and appreciates the effort grandma has put in, her feedback will not hurt. She did just that and it worked so well. 

In my book of parenting, relationship guidance is one of the most important lessons a parent can give a child (either subtly or openly). What about you?

Pic credits: