Utopia

My ideal holiday is one where I hole up in a hotel room, order room service all day long, and read the stack of books I have brought along with me.

Being an avid reader all my life, it was somehow disconcerting and disheartening to suddenly come across speedbumps that almost threw me off-course. For the past couple of years, I’ve had such trouble reading books that I had kind of given up on them. Most of them just bored me. Nothing, not the story, not the language, absolutely nothing seemed to keep me interested enough to complete the books I brought home from the library. I even joined the local book club in an attempt to revive some interest.

This weekend, however, was as close to Utopia as I could get. Perhaps it’s just a cycle that I was going through, but this time, the books I lugged home on Friday evening kept me engrossed the whole weekend. I just loved all of them, and I count them as successes because they got me lost in their world, and left lingering notes for me to feast on.

Stephen King goes to the Movies: Stephen King reminds me of Ray Bradbury, in the way the words just tumble out. It might be careful work by these two writers, but when you read them, you get this sense of breathlessness, the sense that they are just unable to contain the flow of words, they will just explode if they stop writing. One of the stories was ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’. I loved the movie The Shawshank Redemption, but reading the story as written by King gave me a different vision, and it definitely didn’t bring Tim Robbins to mind as Andy Dufresne. That was also the night after the heavy rains in Bangalore, so when I stepped out for a cool walk in the night, King’s words circled me like a pet dog wagging its tail, and all at once I was inspired. A long-forgotten idea surfaced and clicked into place beautifully, and I’m excited to see how that story will turn out.

Running with the Demon by Terry Brook: YA novels have long fascinated me. I am a bit taken aback by the violence in many of them (Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner), but I love that age (in stories that is), the confusion, the maturing, oh so many things. Any book that has within the opening para, this wonderful sentence — ‘His voice cut through the cottony layers of her sleep with the sharpness of a cat’s claw.’ — can only get better as it goes along. Such a beautifully written book, though a bit predictable given the YA genre, yet the ending is so perfect, just the type that makes you heave a big sigh of relief after holding your breath through all the battles.

Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood: Margaret Atwood is easily one of my favourite authors. She makes the story of just one woman so compelling. You can feel the heat of the tropics, the anarchy of her surroundings, the confusion in her head, the desperation of the search for that elusive something — she does it all so well. Every word is so carefully picked, not a comma is out of place, meticulous is the word that comes to mind. Rennie came with me on my walk last night, and I wanted to hold her hand and say that it’s going to be ok.

I’m currently reading the last book in that pile from the library, Solar by Ian McEwan. So far I like it.

I love that I’m reading again, and I love that I love what I’ve read. There’s no better feeling than to come away with the stain of the book on your fingers.

Freedom

Have been reading this really interesting book “The Underground Girls of Kabul – The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys.”

Though it is focuses on Afghanistan, the truths it touches upon are universal.

One passage particularly resonated with me:

“Freedom is an interesting concept. When I asked Afghans to describe to me the difference between men and women, over the years interesting responses came back. While Afghan men often begin to describe women as more sensitive, caring, and less physically capable than men, Afghan women tend to offer up only one difference, which had never entered my mind before.

Want to take a second and guess what that one difference may be?

Here is the answer: Regardless of who they are, whether they are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, Afghan women often describe the difference between men and women in just one word: FREEDOM

As in: Men have it, women do not.”

Budding Writers

I was invited by the children’s book club in our apartment complex to give a talk as a “writer”. I am still not at all comfortable with that designation, though I can claim to have books in my name! 🙂

Preparing for a talk with kids is always a challenge. The sheer unpredictability of the audience is what makes it so worthwhile. This was no different. I prepared a fun hand-out, and read up on the most popular authors that kids adore — Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, and J K Rowling.

There were about a dozen kids (including Lil D, who joined the book club on her own, much to my surprise!), and my introduction was typical — I was introduced as Lil D’s mother 🙂 (She is more popular in the apartment complex by far)

I began with introductions and from that moment on, there was no stopping. The kids were so lively, so full of ideas, so keen on everything, and most important, so passionate about books. It was so heartening to see the way they devoured books, absorbing and internalizing every little detail. They were bursting with information, especially about Roald Dahl.

There was a memorable moment when one boy just stood up, picked up a book, turned to the right page, and read out a complete episode about Roald Dahl in connection with what we were discussing! The kids needed absolutely no prompting, and the hour passed by so quickly that I was surprised.

I was happy that I was able to contribute in some small way, but I must say that kids these days (yeah, that cliche!) are just too cool. One girl had this book where she had neatly written down her stories complete with gorgeous illustrations. I was so impressed!

Every single one of them wanted to be a writer. When I asked them to imagine their names on books, you could see their eyes sparkling with dreams. I do hope their passion remains strong and it would be so grand if one of them (or all of them!) does turn out to be a successful writer!

The entire encounter warmed my cynical old soul. The icing on the cake was the fact that so many kids waved hello to me when I went for my evening walk a few days later! Such a lovely experience, all in all.

Books I Could Not Read

I guess this is a strange post for a person who is such an avid book-lover. However, this is the first time that I borrowed four books from the library, and I could not bring myself to complete even one of them! That in itself is such a remarkable event that it’s worth recording.

The four offending books are:
1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. This was a book I plunged straight into and I found it really engrossing in the beginning. A few hundred pages later, and I became weary of it. There was nothing uplifting about it, the characters were all rather dreary and just f***ing around with each other, and even that was so listless. I gave up half-way. There’s enough gloominess and ennui in the real world without having to be subject to it in a concentrated form through this book.

2. Letters from a Father to his Daughter by Jawaharlal Nehru: I tried very hard to be impressed by the fact that he was in prison when he wrote this, and his daughter was just ten years old, but honestly, it did nothing for me. I felt like I was reading Lil D’s school book.

3. Migraine by Oliver Sacks: I love anything related to the human brain, and enjoyed greatly his earlier book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. This book, however, was a huge mistake because I did not open it before borrowing it. Horror of horrors, the print was so fine that I actually tried reading it with a magnifying glass, and then gave up. It was ironical — I could have ended up with a horrid migraine reading this book!

4. A book that will not be named. It was by an Indian author and I don’t want to take names, but this was just unreadable. I barely skimmed a couple of pages, then gave up and shut the book.

So, there it is. A day I never thought I would see. A sad day for me. 😦

Master

If there is one author I cannot get enough of, it is Haruki Murakami (Henning Mankell is a close second at present).

I don’t recollect how I came across his name, but I first read his Kafka on the Shore. It was a strange book, unlike anything I had ever read before, and while I tried hard to make sense of it, I just couldn’t. I learnt to accept it as is, and I moved on.

I began reading many of his novels after that. Somewhere (again I don’t quite recollect where) it was described best: reading his books is as if you are in a dream. When you wake up from the dream, you can’t quite narrate what you experienced, but it leaves an intense impression and emotion which lingers on for quite some time.

It’s difficult to say what exactly I like about the books. The narrator is almost always a loner, a person who does not mind being alone most of the time, who cooks and cleans with precision, who listens to jazz or at least some sort of music, and who has strange experiences. The strange experiences seem almost natural in the book, it does not seem in the least bit bizarre. His language is terse yet not abrupt, his writing is clean but flows like a natural stream, clear and sure.

Every time I read or re-read any of his books, I am loathe to reach the end. I yearn to read more, to go along with him on this journey he takes, into a strangeness that is comforting in its unfamiliarity.

Above all, I want to shake his hand and say: Thank you, thank you for writing with such understated brilliance. There will never be another quite like you.

That Grand Old Story

The Illustrated Mahabharatha - Wilco Books

Recently, I picked up “The Illustrated Mahabharatha (Wilco Books)” for Lil D. She has a nice book on Ramayana, and I wanted her to get familiar with the Mahabharatha too. A couple of her friends watch the serial that’s airing nowadays, but I figured this was a better way to get her into the story, considering the serial takes five minutes after every sentence to show the reactions of the entire costumed cast!

So now her bed-time routine includes me reading a couple of chapters to her every night. The book has nugget-sized chapters that usually don’t take more than a couple of pages, so it is perfect. Of course, there are some issues with the editing, but by and large, I think the book does a pretty good job of getting the Mahabharatha down to an easily digestible level.

We don’t discuss what I read as such, but sometimes Lil D is struck by the unfairness of it all, and protests quite vehemently. Ekalavya was one such instance when she got mad at Drona.

The blatant unfairness in this grand old story is so mind-boggling. The way women are treated, for example, is old hat. I positively hate the way Amba is tossed about like baggage, till she decides to end her life and be reborn as Shikandi to take her revenge.

The caste equations for women are also pretty clear. King Shantanu can marry a fisherman’s daughter and not get affected in the least, but Draupadi will tell Karna that she cannot marry a sutaputra (son of a charioteer) and disqualify him from her swayamvara!

The less said about lineage, the better. None of the Pandavas are really Pandu’s sons, purportedly being the offspring of Gods themselves, and Pandu himself is not a true-blue Kuru descendant because he is the son of Sage Vyasa and Ambalika. In fact, technically speaking, the Kuru clan dies out with King Shantanu’s sons themselves: Bheeshma, who takes a vow of celibacy and so has no offspring; Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya who both die before they father any children.

So the big deal made out of Karna’s low-caste, and the raw deals given to both women and the lower caste folks (Ekalavya, Karna) is ironic, considering that both Pandu and Dritharashtra are not true-blue royal folks themselves in the strictest sense!

I guess the biggest plus about the Mahabharatha is that it makes us think about these overt injustices in the first place. In the end, it holds a mirror to society of that age, and the reflection is, just as life has always been and continues to be, not very pretty.

Some Books

All of a sudden, I’ve been consuming books voraciously. This, after a long, dry lull, where I grew impatient with books and gave up on reading quite a few.

Here are some thoughts on the books I’ve been reading.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: What an absolutely lovely book just for the way it is written. The writing is brilliant, superlative; practically every sentence was a beaut. The story was woven intricately and kept me completely engrossed. When I finished it, I had to literally come up for air. I can’t say I grasped its essence wholly; it was like incense that fills the air with its heady perfume and then disappears without a trace. If this is her debut book, how will she ever surpass it?

Blindness by Jose Saramago: What struck me most was the style of writing. The paragraphs just ran on and on. The central idea was novel, and though it held up a mirror to society in a sense, it didn’t enthrall me completely. I guess in a society which is more ordered, it would shock and horrify. But living as we are, with a very thin line between chaos and order, it did not exactly make me shocked or upset. The other thing which it made me wonder about was the effect of translation and how much gets lost or preserved in this process.

The Return of the Dancing Master by Henning Mankell: I first heard about Mankell when I was reading something about Stieg Larsson whose trilogy had become a sensation. It was something to the effect that Mankell was a far superior writer. This made me curious and I went on a Mankell binge. Suffice it to say, I LOVED the books. Kurt Wallander became a character very dear to me. The Return of the Dancing Master is not a Kurt Wallander book, it introduces a new detective – Stefan Lindman. It opens with him being diagnosed with cancer, and then plunges both him and us into a double murder. By now, being a bit more familiar with the style of writing, I guessed where it was going, but still it was a delight. This is again a translation, and again I wondered at the flavour that was coming through.

The Realm of Hungry Spirits by Lorraine Lopez: A delightful light read, perfect for a movie. All the elements are there in the right proportion. The main character Marina is a magnet for the troubled and her house is full of souls who have lost their way. The characters are so well etched and there’s plenty of emotion. I can easily imagine this in an Indian setting.

I think I’ll stop here because there are too many books I want to write about. Perhaps another post. But I must admit that I pinched Matilda from Lil D’s collection one night, and had such a ball reading it! The most interesting tidbits regarding both Roald Dahl and the illustrator Quentin Blake were an education. Nothing to chase away the blues better than the old favourites, no? 🙂