The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

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A white orphan boy adopted by a Mexican ‘faggot’, another Mexican girl with a now here then not birth mother whose way of communicating is through messages in lipstick on the bathroom mirror and another boy whose whole family are addicts and who seems to be a mutation – weird, even gory isn’t it?

I have no clue where I heard of this book and why I decided to download it. But then, I’ve ceased looking for reasons , of the how and when books open themselves out to me. They drop into my lap when the time is just right. This is a genre that I would have kept afar in the normal course – Young Adult, they call it. Let me say, many of these books are more so for us parents, specially those of teenagers. It’s a rare parent that remembers their own years of angst, trying to find a foothold between the innocence of childhood, the raging hormones of the teen years and the underlying maturity of adulthood. You meet one of those here, to remind us what parenthood is all about, should be about.

The story revolves around a year in the life of seveteen year old Salvador, his best friend Samantha and their classmate Fito. It covers the whole gamut of challenges they face – bullying, drug abuse, alcoholism, love life or the lack of it, the need for validation, the struggle between standing up and being ridiculed, death of loved ones, unexplained anger, parental pressure, finding confidence and ultimately love. It’s also a story of how one mature and loving adult can change the life of many a kid.

Sounds too much and too confusing? Not at all. The narrative is so beautiful and in a language that kids and adults alike can relate to, that I just couldn’t put it down. Literally. After years, I almost bunked a day’s work. Yes, it’s been a very long time since I finished a book in a day. It sure did touch a very raw spot in this mother’s heart, for I’d had another one of those heated fights with the resident teenager the day before. It’s tough admitting that you are wrong, maybe that’s why I had tears streaming down my face towards the end.

I’ve stopped reviewing books in the conventional sense. Whether it’s good or bad, how good the writing style is, if the storyline is plausible or not etc., etc. What I do instead is to wait for those snapshots that connect, those that makes you set the book down and make you think, or better still, dream. This one provided more than enough of such,

“I told you that there were only two things you needed to learn in life. You needed to learn how to forgive. And you needed to learn how to be happy.”
“I am happy, Mima.” I was lying to her, but not all lies were bad.
“That means you’ve learned to forgive.”

But the best of all was some memories of childhood. Of family dinners and tables filled with food. How uncles and aunts and cousins get together, conversations in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bed room. How the kids fought with each other and then made up among themselves. How lucky was it to have grandparents who loved you to the moon and back, at the same time giving you a piece of their mind or the sharp edges of a cane on your bottom if the situation warranted it. Of how your family could break you to pieces and another one could mend it all. How everything everything has a reason , a logic that we may not understand then.

“I finally understood something about life and its inexplicable logic. I’d wanted to be certain of everything, and life was never going to give me any certitude.”

Most of all the book reminded me of the good that is there in this world. Fiction, you say? But isn’t fiction itself borne out of reality?

 

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The Goddess of Utmost Feelings

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She has been loved to bits, ridiculed to the limits, hated with a vengeance, questioned till there was nothing left, labeled an anti-national, called a pseudo intellectual, her life has been dissected thread bare and her psyche explored like a Phd thesis.  Ever since her Booker Prize, each aspect of her has been ripped apart. Her non- fictional books and articles have been derided by academicians and lay people alike. Her patriotism has been questioned as if she was the most dangerous terrorist this country has ever seen. Yet, she seem to go on stoically, doing exactly what she wants, saying exactly what she feels, not caring even a wee bit about what the world feels about her, or her writing.

This is a book that was looked forward to by many, for almost twenty years. Her second book of fiction, they say. As her first one, how much is fiction and how much is fact, I wonder. But then, isn’t fiction itself a fact, a piece of life sliced away from a lifetime of experiences? A way of looking at life in a detached manner, the luxury of which we are denied in our realities?

At first, it’s the story of Aftab, a girl caught in the body of a boy. Sacrilege in the family that she was born into and the society that she is forced to live in. But she is defiant, the raging fires could not be restrained. She gains acceptance as she embraces her reality and turns into Anjum, the famous queen of the graveyard. As her story unfolds, what tugs at your heart and stays there long after is the riots, and her silence after that. A silence that speaks much louder than any gunshot or cry could ever be.

Then comes Tilo. The dark and skinny ‘orphan’ girl from the South. And the three men whose lives are twisted around her for years, maybe for ever. When you read, there are certain images that you weave around each character. If Anjum is a tall, manly creature dressed in neon coloured, sequined flowing dresses with a loud and slightly nasal voice, Musa a stout and fair Kashmiri with eyes like that of the famed Pakistani chai wallah, Naga the quintessential loud voice in a party with a swag, and ‘Garson Hobart’ a pot bellied, bloody eyed semi drunkard who still longs for a love that could never be his, Tilo is so much the author, you just cannot imagine a fictitious form that character. The shaved head, the sharp collar bones, the deep and pained unfathomable eyes that speak of generations of feeling too much, it is only her that you can ever think of.

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And it is Tilo and her Kashmir that has stayed with me even after days of finishing the book. And as story after story comes in from the valley, I realize she has written no fiction. Stark reality, as seen by someone who has felt it, to the core. Snippets of how life has changed for an ordinary Kashmiri,

We Kashmiris do not need to speak to each other any more in order to understand each other. We do terrible things to each other, we wound and betray and kill each other, but we understand each other.

Theories abound, rhetoric aplenty, opinions innumerable and stories written and rewritten on the why, how and when of a ‘heaven on earth’ slowly turning into the valley of death. I can see the deep ache in those eyes and feel the pain of her emotions as she wrote these words,

“Martyrdom stole into the Kashmir Valley from across the Line of Control, through moonlit mountain passes manned by soldiers. Night after night it walked on narrow, stony paths wrapped like thread around blue cliffs of ice, across vast glaciers and high meadows of waist-deep snow. It trudged past young boys shot down in snowdrifts, their bodies arranged in eerie, frozen tableaux under the pitiless gaze of the pale moon in the cold night sky, and stars that hung so low you felt you could almost touch them.

When it arrived in the Valley it stayed close to the ground and spread through the walnut groves, the saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards like a creeping mist. It whispered words of war into the ears of doctors and engineers, students and labourers, tailors and carpenters, weavers and farmers, shepherds, cooks and bards. They listened carefully, and then put down their books and implements, their needles, their chisels, their staffs, their ploughs, their cleavers and their spangled clown costumes. They stilled the looms on which they had woven the most beautiful carpets and the finest, softest shawls the world had ever seen, and ran gnarled, wondering fingers over the smooth barrels of Kalashnikovs that the strangers who visited them allowed them to touch. They followed the new Pied Pipers up into the high meadows and alpine glades where training camps had been set up. Only after they had been given guns of their own, after they had curled their fingers around the trigger and felt it give, ever so slightly, after they had weighed the odds and decided it was a viable option, only then did they allow the rage and shame of the subjugation they had endured for decades, for centuries, to course through their bodies and turn the blood in their veins into smoke.

The mist swirled on, on an indiscriminate recruitment drive.”

Once again, I wonder. Why is she hated so much? Is it because she dares to speak out exactly what she feels? Why do people seem to be so scared of her opinions? Because she says what we know in the heart of our hearts? She is no terrorist, we know. What she does is try to find reasons for certain behaviors. Isn’t that what a true artist is supposed to do? Bring out the truth when others are petrified? How does one become an anti national for this? Doesn’t each story has multiple sides? Each character a reason to be? Who decides what is right and wrong? She instigates no gunning down, she doesn’t call for massacres, neither does she side with mob fury. What she does, again and again, fiction after non-fiction, is to bring some sense to her angsts, the anxieties of a nation, the disappointments of a generation.

Oh yes, she warns us, lest we forget. While being glad that there are others, especially like her, who reflects one’s own thoughts, it’s not comforting. For, the adults in us are borne of the children we once were.

They would be more likely to win any war they fought, because they belonged to a generation that had known nothing but war.

And for an undecided youth begotten by a paranoid parent, all it takes is the collateral death of a loved one to cross the line. Literally and figuratively. We’ve seen this happening time and again.

For me, this is a book on Kashmir. She has tried to include Gujarat riots, the Narmada mess, Maoists, Bastar, the agonies of the genderless, in fact, everything that she stands for in a single story, and tries to connect it all together. Does she feel there might not be another story that she will write, or was she trying to purge herself of all that she has been holding in?

There are people who might call her crazy, like they would brand Anjum and her ilk. But, isn’t the crazy ones that has always called out the truth?

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The story might feel disjointed and meandering as many a reader has called out. The chapter around Jantar Mantar where you meet Miss Jebeen the Second is too long winded, I agree. That is besides the point, though. The author’s victory lies in making the reader feel. Irrespective of what that feeling is. And then those two or three lines that stays with you long after you leave the story behind,

Her heart felt like a grey pebble in a mountain stream –something icy rushed over it.

I’m biased, you say? But then I’ve always loved gutsy women. Especially those who care two hoots about what the world says. They are all heart, and when they pour it out, you better listen.

 

(pictures courtesy – penguin.com and vagabomb.com)

 

 

Of kids, books and magic

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I paid a fortune for this set, 12 years ago. In fact, it was in about fifteen months of installments that the payment was done. By far, the best investment in money till date.

There was a set of 10 step by step ‘ learning to read ‘ books that came long with this. Both the kids started their affair with the written word with those. Have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it out to both of them. The first word that they could read, the wonder filled joy on their faces, is still the most priceless feeling in the world.

People ask how do you make kids read? The only way I know, read out to them, day after day, the same pages again and again. With the first born, there was more time, I have to admit with a twinge of guilt. We would read diligently, morning after morning. That was the easiest way to wake him up, “get up, let’s read.” We would lean on the temple wall, waiting for the school bus, reading whatever he picked up for the day. At random, continued from the previous day, or something that piqued his interest. There was no method, nor any plan, we just read.

He was on to serious reading by the time he turned eight. Enid Blyton never interested him, to my chagrin. Thank God, I was sensible enough to stop pushing after a couple of Famous Fives.  Hardy Boys met with the same fate, he couldn’t complete even one. A pattern emerged slowly and surely. Biorgraphies and sports. Don’t take me wrong, he was still a boy, thankfully. Greg Heffley* was his constant companion. That ‘Wimpy Kid’ was with him as he ate meal after meal was devoured with that skinny kid by his side, the boy even fed the kid. The almost adult still devours the series. As I shout at him for bringing it to the dining table the fiftieth time, he retaliates, “but it was you bought me the first one. I never asked for it.”

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Then came life. He took to Lance Armstrong like a Kuttanadan to duck. Between school and play, he finished the autobiography in two days flat. Barely a week later, the news broke. Of  cheating, there is no other word to describe it. I will never forget the disbelief in my boy’s eyes and the catch in his throats as he said, “it wouldn’t be true, alle Amma?”

The next round belonged to a contraption I hate with all my heart – the X-box.  The day it came into our lives, sounded like the death knell of books. The silly thing never knew the power of a miffed mother, though. As the addiction grew, so did my resolve to fight back. We reached a compromise , Monday to Thursday turned to no screen days. Voila, the lovers were back together, again. Life is like the tides now. It ebbs and flows, when the son’s eyes turn red, the mother’s decibel levels rise. But we’ve learned to live together, the books, a few screens, the son and his mother. For, now I know he has a friend for life. When he seems lost, I can see his hands stretching out to his bedside table and a light shining under the door long after the midnight clock has struck twelve. He is in safe hands.

Now, the daughter is another story by herself. She lives in another universe altogether. Of elves and fairies and all things bright and shiny. Having escaped the world of making night into a work day, I started reading to her while making her sleep. “One more page” was like music except on some days that was particularly exhausting. But again, read we did. Whenever and wherever we could. To my utter horror again, she followed her brother’s footsteps. No Enid Blyton! How could my very own turn traitors? By then, I was too old and weary to fight losing battles. I should have known where she was headed the moment she started picking up fairy tales. The Pottermaniac is growing up I know when I see her stacking up Archie’s during our monthly ritual of visiting Blossoms. Her books are filled with colours, just like her soul – Thea Stilton, Tinkle, Archie’s, Fairy Tales and of course, Harry Potter.

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That first set of English reading books went to my nephew an year ago. While on a cleaning spree today, I realize it’s time. For the next set to find a new home. To entice another little one to the magical world that words are.

Dear Ouseph, it’s not mere books that are coming your way. It’s the keys to magical kingdom, that was guarded lovingly by your chettan and Chechi , protected fiercely by your ammai and looked upon with indulgence by your uncle. Drink from it, satiate your hunger for knowledge and guard it with your life. Until you pass it on to your little brother.

And I send you this wish, “May the word be your legacy!”

But then I know it cannot be otherwise, for it is your grandfather that took a young girl by her hands and led her to the bright and enticing world that was hiding behind the dark shelves of the long forgotten ‘The English Bookhouse’ .

Being Vulnerable

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“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning,”

Acknowledging that you are vulnerable, asking for help when you need it. Most of the time, it takes something that shocks you out of life as you knew it, to bring you to your knees. We wonder why certain things happen to us. The reasons may not always seem clear in the beginning. And it is revealed only to those who search for it, with all their heart.

https://backchannel.com/sheryl-sandbergs-accidental-revolution-9fadfcf90d6d?mbid=social_cp_fb_tny

I’ve always respected this woman, though ‘Lean In’ was not something that I fully subscribed to. Then came her husband’s death. How she reacted to it was beyond belief. She opened herself up, completely. In the process she has inspired millions to open themselves up, to have the courage to accept their vulnerabilities, and say it out loud. Coming from one of the ‘strongest’ women in the professional world today, this must have let out a huge sigh and more than few tears from men and women alike. The myth of ‘having it all toegether,’ come what may, has been busted. This is what true inspiration is all about.

Two books that I read and re read in the past few months reiterates this.

Brene Brown, in ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Elizabeth Lesser continues in ‘Broken Open’

“had I neever stumbled down the mountain of my ideals, had my ego not been humbled by loss, and my heart not broken open by pain, I would not have discovered the secret treasure that lies waiting for each one of us at the bottom of our most difficult times.”

Read and then tell your story. It will make you free and make some others open up as well. For, healing happens when you share yourself.

No coincidence

Gosh! Almost two years since I reminisced on my reads? Sacrilege!

Not that I have not been reading. Or writing. Both became a lot more private, more of reflections than reviews. And I’ve not considered myself a reviewer, anyway. Over the past two years there have been some personal enlightenments, a few revelations that has forced me to open parts of my senses and close out more than a few sensibilities as well. All through, it has been books that provided a let out, that lent a shoulder to rest a head that my tired neck was finding difficult to hold. More about those books later.

More than the stories, it is the feeling of empathy and the style of writing that entices and keeps me hooked now. The flow of thoughts, of the feeling of the much cliched deja vu, and recognition of the kindred spirits in authors is what makes me alive these days. Why not write what I feel as I smile at a passage, as I wallow in self pity at times and then come alive as I absorb the positive vibes that the author sends ? So here goes the first one.

 

I don’t believe in coincidences anymore. There are signs everywhere, that connects you to kindred spirits. It could be someone you meet, a story that you love, an author who resonates your thoughts that you feel you’ve known them for ages.

The name Grace Paley came up in Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage,’ a compendium of her articles from various publications over a period of time. In the delightful ‘The Getaway Car’ from Byliner, September 2011, she talks about her writing experiences, right from when she was six years old. Patchett writes of Paley,

“She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist and artist was all the same person”

That tingling sense of finding a kindred soul…and Patchett exhorts,

“Interested in being a better writer? Go buy yourself a copy of ‘The Collected Stories’ by Grace Paley.”

So I did. Download a copy. And this is what welcomed me. Yes, I am close to being home 🙂

“It seems right to dedicate this collection to my friend Sybil Claiborne, my colleague in the Writing and Mother Trade. I visited her fifth-floor apartment on Barrow Street one day in 1957. There before my very eyes were her two husbands disappointed by the eggs. After that we talked and talked for nearly forty years. Then she died. Three days before that, she said slowly, with the delicacy of an unsatisfied person with only a dozen words left, Grace, the real question is—how are we to live our lives?”

Excerpt From: Grace, Paley. “The Collected Stories.”

 

 

‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones

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Solitary women and kids, in war torn areas, the theme seem to be recurring in the books that come my way these days. ‘Kamchatka,’ the Argentinian civil war from the eyes of a 10 year old boy and a board game in the background, ‘An Unnecessary Woman,‘ from Lebanon, ‘Harraga,’ the path burners from Algeria and now ‘Mister Pip’ from the fictitious tropical island of Bougainville.

Stories through the eyes of children are bittersweet. There is always a silver lining that peeps through the deep, dark clouds. Lloyd Jones’s ‘Mister Pip’ is one such. The protagonist is named Matilda, no other name would have suited her better. War has closed off this tiny island from the rest of the world, last of the teachers have left. That is when Mr. Watts, the lone white man in the island, appoints himself as their teacher, the only textbook they have is Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations.’ And the book opens out a totally new world to her, Pip becomes her closest friend.

“The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears bad people spoke like pirates.”

In the background is the daily life of a mother and a teenaged daughter, the unspoken tensions between them, the memories of a father who had left to make a living. To get on with the story, Mr. Watts acknowledges that he is no authority on anything. So he invites the elders, one by one to come and talk to the kids. Oh, the beauty of what they say,

“Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats. Thank you, God, for giving us the colour blue.

‘It is surprising where the colour blue pops up,’ continued Daniel’s grandmother. ‘Look and ye shall find. You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. And you know what it is trying to do? It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them back home. If blue was an animal or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.

‘Blue also has magical powers,’ she said. ‘You watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! Now how does it do that?’ “

Matilda’s mother resents the growing closeness between her daughter and the White teacher. Added to it is the fact that Mr. Watts’ wife is her childhood friend Grace, who is there, but lost to her old family and friends.

The whole village lives in fear of the soldiers or the Rambos as they are called, and the rebels who are better known as the red skins.A visit from either faction leaves behind some devastating effects. And they lose the book ‘Great Expectations’ in one of these skirmishes. What comes next is beautiful. As Mr. Watts prods the kids to remember and recreate Dickens from what they remember of their readings in the class, he is in fact teaching them to recreate a world that might otherwise have been lost, he pushes each of them to find their own voice and to take pride in it.

Books by themselves are beautiful. And when it tells us stories of books and the magical world of reading, told so well, it is as if you have found the elixir to losing one’s self to the rest of the world. There is a part in the story where a group of ‘rambos’ captures Mr.Watts. The villages turn away frightened. When they are asked to return in the middle of the night, what they find is unbelievable – a group of kids who were insufferable a few hours ago, hanging on to every word of the teacher.

“Those rambos had not heard a storytelling voice for years. The boys sat there, with their mouths and ears open to catch every word, their weapons resting on the ground in front of their bare feet like useless relics…….Three years in the jungle setting death traps for the redskins had made them dangerous, but when I saw the soft focus of their eyes by the fire, I saw faces that missed the classroom. They were practically kids themselves.”

I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, I’d rather call them connections. And it has to be one of these connections that led me to this TED talk, where the speaker mentions a similar experience with the boys of Taliban. They have held nothing but guns in their hands for as long as they could remember. But, they too long for something better, things far greater than themselves.

The story takes its twists and turns, like Matilda you try to throw the unpleasant parts into a closed space in your memory and think of the good things alone. I could go on and on about the thoughts that are spread throughout the book, the beauty of the writing and how almost each sentence brings out a smile on to your face. They say, to be a good writer, you have to be an excellent reader as well. The passionate book lover in you instantly recognizes the kindred soul in the author. As when you listen to Mr. Watts,

“But you know, Matilda, you cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”

The narrative sometimes catches you by your soul, it is almost as if you are lying on the white sands, staring up at the stars twinkling far above, lost in the magical voice of Mr.Watts,

“If you watched closely you saw Mr.Watts sink into himself. You saw his eyes close, as if reaching for faraway words, faint as distant stars. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. The only other noises came from the fire, the sea murmuring, and the nightlife in the trees waking from their daytime slumber. But on hearing Mr.Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. “

You turn the last page with a sigh. Why is it that certain books leave you with such a deep yearning, striking that perfect chord with the strings of your heart? Is it the innate goodness of the characters, is it the feeling that you are left with in the end, that in spite of all the pain, you can still find hope , happiness and peace in this world? Or as in the case of this one, the ultimate conviction that a book can really change your life?

To be fair to the reader let me admit that I lost the thread somewhat as the story moved out of the island. Isn’t that the tough reality of life as well? We all find cocoons of solitude in an island that we create for ourselves. We might not get along with some of the inhabitants there, but that is alright. It is our very special magical land. And then we are forced out, sometimes catapulted out without as much as a slight warning. That is when we find our true mettle. Whether we are able to find our voice in the cacophony , whether we are strong enough to listen to it.

Verdict: Read it. A five star one, in spite of flipping through a few passages towards the end. The other parts make it totally worth it.

5/5 

Ismat Aap Ke Naam*

imageThe name sounded different. There was something about it, though. It kept coming back, in some article or another. I got to know it was a woman and she was usually referred to along with my new favorite author Sadat Hasan Manto. Then another article mentioned something about controversies, and I love such women. The name was ear marked and stored in one of those soon to be retrieved shelves of my memory.

I could never resist the crinkle in his eyes. And there he was, saying wistfully, “if only we can live half the life she lived..,” fondly referring to her as Ismat Apa. Who is this woman? Curiosity got the better of me, as Naseerudeen Shah talked about meeting her, on her controversial short story ‘Lihaaf’ and how he, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba decided to stage their play on her, in Urdu, ‘Ismat Aapke Naam.’ The name was dusted afresh and pushed towards the front of the memory shelf.

Short stories were a genre that I usually kept away from. Maybe the reader in me wanted the stories to go on for ever. With work that never seemed to end, the long form was turning into something that had some hard demands. And I turned towards the ones that took the time of a short break. The stories transformed themselves into an alternative for the banter across the cubicles and long coffee sessions that I were missing, as I worked more and more from home. Pick up one, read a couple of stories. Keep it aside, pick another one, and so it went.

A sleepy mid morning and a dull conference call. The hard bound  volume opened at a random page, there was no bookmark to remind where I’d left it last time. The name stared at my face. It was time, to meet the woman and her ‘Lihaaf.’

The protagonist, a young girl has no name , it would be apt to describe her as a tomboy. Rather than leave her to her fights with her brothers and their friends, her mother leaves her with an aunt as she travel s to Agra for a week. The Begum Jan, married to the Nawab Sahib, ‘essentially a decent man who stayed away from the company of whores and dancing girls.’ He had no vices, in fact, he was so virtuous that ‘he had students staying over at his home – fair, young boys with slender waists – whose expenses were borne entirely by Nawab  Sahib.’

As can be expected in such cases, Begum Jan withered, devoid of attention from husband and family. Until Rabbo arrived with her oil of secret ingredients and the never ending massages. The girl is obviously enraptured by the sensuous Begum Jan, but is old enough to sense something is not right between the Begum and her trustworthy masseuse. As night falls, the tom boy turns into a timid girl who is scared to sleep alone. Having slept off in a small cot in the Begum’s bed room,  she wakes up in the middle of the night to some muffled sounds in the room. In the dim light, the quilt on the Begum’s bed has come to life. To her young mind, it is as if an elephant had got under the silken quilt. The strange noises and the billowing shapes frighten her no end. The story goes on to say how the girl grows up overnight in the Begum’s hands and the animals that she find under the quilt.

And I find myself going back to Naseerudin Shah’s words,

” It’s a story that has given a certain notoriety to Ismat Apa which makes people curious about her. On the one hand Lihaf made her famous; on the other, people read nothing else but Lihaf. It’s not a titillating story, it’s not about lesbians but about child abuse. It’s a disturbing story. She never says a single thing directly, it’s all elliptical. People failed to understand that.”

The real story is between the lines. In the words that are not written, but those you could still read.  Of the stereo types that young girls are expected to be. Of marriages that are not. Of vices that are camouflaged as virtues. Of repression, sexual and emotional. The ways in which women escape, and how, at times drag their own down, along with them. Yet, nothing is overt, not a word is out of place, nothing is even remotely sexual.

Remember Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ and the controversaries it created? One cannot but relate Begum Jan to the characters portrayed by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Women who are forced into marriage and men who find satisfaction elsewhere. And the finding of happiness where they can find it. If ‘Fire’ created so much heat at the beginning of twenty first century, imagine the furore such a story could have created in the Lahore of nineteen forties.

Ismat Chughtai had to face an obscenity trial for this story and was asked to apologize. She promptly refused to do so and defended the case by herself. The prosecution failed miserably in establishing their case, for the story was said from the perspective of a young girl, there was no obscenity whatsoever anywhere, and she had woven the story in a suggestive manner. And she won. Some woman, eh?

As I go in search of her other stories, you can read the ‘Lihaaf’ here:

http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/PDF%20file%20110/9.%20Short%20Story%20-%20Lihaaf%20%5BThe%20Quilt%5D.pdf

* Name of the play on Ismat Chughtai, produced by The Motley Theatre Company.

( Naseerudin Shah on Ismat Chughtai – http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/naseeruddin-shah-on-ismat-chughtai-if-only-we-can-live-half-the-life-she-did )

Portrait of Two Ladies

imageSome stories are like that. You can read it again and again and then some more. You start smiling in anticipation, the feelings remain the same irrespective of the number of times you have read and relished it. And the end, that is why you go back. To relive some memories. The kind that make you feel this world is after all a good place. If not humans, there are sparrows and mango trees that care for you.

I read it again, today. After an year or so. And the wistful smile in my eyes is still the same, I know. And the ever so gentle tug in my heart, hasn’t changed. Even a teeny weeny bit. If someone asks me how many times I’ve read this story, the only answer would be, ‘a lot.’

A grandson remembers his grandmother. Khushwant Singh’s ‘Portrait of a Lady.’ His memories of an old lady, one who hasn’t changed a bit in the twenty odd years he has known her,

“we were certain she had always been as we had known her. Old, so terribly old that she could not have  grown older, and had stayed at the same age for twenty years. She could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful.”

Back in the village , they were good friends. The boy and the old lady. The tie began to fray as the family moved to the city and the boy’s horizon grew beyond the walls of their room and the road to the village temple. He got his own room and later moved abroad for higher studies. He didn’t expect his grandmother to be alive at the end of five years, when he came home. Yet, she was still there. The only change was she had started feeding sparrows instead of the stray dogs back in the village pathways. The prayer beads still continued to turn in her hand as her lips moved in prayers that only she could hear.

Her demeanor changed one evening. Instead of her prayers, she started singing to the tunes of an old drum that she thumped along with the women of neighborhood whom she had collected. She was a wise woman. She knew her time was up and leave she did, peacefully as she prayed. The ending of the  story leaves me with bittersweet memories. Every single time. Without fail.

“We lifted her off the bed and, as is customary, laid her on the ground and covered her with a red shroud. After a few hours of mourning we left her alone to make arrangements for the funeral.

In the evening we went to her room with a crude stretcher to take her to be cremated. The sun was setting and had lit her room and verandah with a blaze of golden light. We stopped halfway in the courtyard. All over the verandah and in her room right up to where she lay dead and stiff, wrapped in the red shroud, thousands of sparrows sat scattered on the floor. There was no chirping. We felt sorry for the birds and my mother fetched some bread for them. She broke it into little crumbs, the way my grandmother used to, and threw it to them. The sparrows took no notice of the bread. When we carried my grandmother’s corpse off, they flew away quietly. Next morning the sweeper swept the breadcrumbs into the dustbin.”

The other end of the country, another wrinkled face. The hands were as hard as a man’s. Calluses left behind by a lifetime of garden tools. Hues of green fell on her hair that was now white. Seventeen trees that dropped mangoes in the night rain and daytime breeze. Then the others, each had their own season. Jack Fruit, Bambloos Naaranga, Cinnamon, Kokum, Guava, even Oranges. But it was for the mangoes that her eyes shined the brightest. Neelam, Salem, Moovandan, Chandrika and a host of other nameless ones. The ones that stained her grandchildren’s dresses as it oozed down in thick yellow down the young chins that quivered with mirth.

It was a monsoon evening that she fell ill. She had a pact, with Mother Mary. To call her on a Saturday, that she could go directly to heaven. No purgatory in between. A straight pass. And Mary kept her promise. She went, on a Saturday evening. In style, thunder beating the drums and lightning showing the path. Straight, to heaven.

December came, cold and dry. The leaves turned tender everywhere. And then burst out in dull green flowers. Like stars in the sky.

But the seventeen that she left behind, they didn’t cry. Even a single teardrop.

The yard lay silent that year.

( picture courtesy – google images)

‘Mrs. Funnybones’ by Twinkle Khanna

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Are you one of those who have always believed Rajesh Khanna’s and Dimple Kapadia’s first off spring could not act even if her life depended on it? Let me admit, I was one of those. To add insult to injury I even thought she was one of those dumb star kids. And then, she disappeared from the silver screen into the arms of a chef turned action hero from Hong Kong (originally from Punjab). The next we heard she was busy spreading the aroma of scented candles and ornate furniture. Until one fine day, she started writing. Or, to put it in the right perspective, her writings start getting published. The stereotype that I am, again typecast her as one of those over rated star wives. Mea culpa.

It’s been more than one year since I’ve started reading her columns and I’ve only grown to like her writing more and more. Contemporary topics talked about in the tone of a light banter and with an impeccable sense of tongue in cheek humor has become her trademark. She doesn’t spare anyone, most of all, her family and herself. The book is no different.

The best part about the book is the fact that she writes about things that she is most comfortable with and those she can relate to. No pontification from the roof, nor is it malicious. The characters are very familiar, after all  many of them are stars in their own right. Her mother, the charming Dimple is portrayed as someone whose only purpose in life is to rededorate her daughter’s home, every day, if possible. The husband, lovingly referred to as ‘the man of the house’ is this food loving, macho Punjabi who lives this funnily dangerous life. One is left chuckling on remembering it is in fact the action hero, Akshay Kumar, that she is talking about.

What connected with me is the sheer simplicity of her language and the down to earth approach she seems to have towards life. We also realize there is a sharp brain that is churning out these words. And this is corroborated as she mentions a certified IQ of 145. The manner in which she presents her achievements takes the ‘brag’ element out of it. ’97 marks in Maths and 97 kilos in weight,’ as she puts it.

Theirs is one of the long standing marriages in Bollywood. And it appears to be going strong after more than 15 years. No wonder. The guy knew a good thing when he saw her. Well done, AK. She Is totally worth it. A girl with super brains and a kiackass sense of humor. Can’t beat that combination.

And I sincerely apologize for judging people based on almost nothing. Twinkle, may your stars turn brighter. (bad joke, I know 😛 )

Verdict : Ignore that vada paav and have her for chai today. Seriously. 

4/5

‘An Unnecessary Woman’ by Rabih Alameddine

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We like to believe that it is us who chose the books we read. If that is so, what draws us to certain books? The ones that we have never seen on bookstore shelves before, authors never heard of even in the most popular book review columns, how do they find their way to us? Among hundreds of others on the shelves, and within a few minutes, how do our eyes catch hold of those covers, our hands grab it as if our life depended on it and before we know, we are walking away with that satisfied smile in our eyes. Our soul sings, this is one of those. The kind you get lost in.

Five thirty in the morning, to catch a flight at fifteen minutes past six is not one of the best times to browse a book shelf. But then, the habit of a lifetime is hard to break. The choice was between this and Antonia Fraser’s ‘The Pleasures of Reading.’ Having met an interesting person from Lebanon a few months ago, the setting was a definite pull. However, it was the blurb that clinched it.

“Aaliya Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s ‘unnecessary appendage.’ Every year, she translates a new favorite work into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty seven books that she has translated over her lifetime has never been read or touched by anyone but her.”

Can there be a character more interesting than her? She is a creature of ritual as far as her translations are concerned. Every single translation of hers has started on a New Year’s Day. At seventy two, contemplating on the next work to be taken up, she is all alone. No friends to talk to, no family whom she feels close to, she has been staying in the same apartment since the day she was married, at sixteen. Four years later, her husband leaves her. Yet, remorse is not for her,

“I did not wait for the smell of him to dissipate on its own. I expunged it.”

Her friend gets her a job in a bookshop. The owner just wanted the prestige of owning a bookshop and she ruled the shop single handed till it closes down almost fifty years later. And that is how she built her own private collection – by ordering an extra copy here and there, not bothering to return a few borrowed ones and then laying claim to the ones that were left as the shop closed down. No regrets about that, either.

The story moves up and down between the present and past, the characters keep coming and going. The three witches who stay in the same building provide a constant background- Marie Therese and Joumana, both teaching at the American University and Fadia, her land lady. Her crazy mother and the elderly brother and his family is at a distance, though their ominous presence is felt throughout.

The story progresses through Aaliya’s thoughts on the books she has read. She has a literary reference for each character and every incident in her life. And that is exactly what makes this book such a pleasure to read. Talking about her impotent husband, she refers to Kant,

“In ‘The Science of Right,’ Kant wrote, ‘Marriage is the Union of two persons of different sexes for the purpose of lifelong mutual possession of each other’s sexual organs.’
Kant obviously hadn’t met my husband.”

On the changing faces of her city , she quotes from ‘Sepharad’ by Antonio Munoz Molina,’

“Only those of us who,have left the city know what the city used to be like and are aware of how much it has changed; it’s the people who stayed can’t remember, who seeing it day after day have been losing that memory, allowing it to be distorted, although they think they’re the ones that remained faithful, and that we, in a sense, are deserters.”

The profusion of quotes doesn’t mean the authors has no words of his own. The subtle sense of humor is so delightful. Again, on her city, Aaliya comments,

“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”

Being a translator herself, even though a closet one, it is but natural that she lays bare her thoughts on the art of translation. One of the best books that she remembers reading is ‘Crime and Punishment,’ in French. She was so impressed by the book that she took up the English translation by Constance Garnett and was duly disappointed. Again, it is through another author that she speaks her mind,

“As Joseph Brodsky said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.’

The author Hits the nail right on the head. Literal translations have no soul. The original need to be transformed and renewed to have any meaning and to speak to the reader.

The pace slows down a bit when Aaliya goes to see her mother. Was it the dearth of references or the pace of life of an old woman, I wonder. The catastrophe at the end and its aftermath brought the story back to life again.

Off late, I’ve been veering towards books from others languages. The insights these stories provide to the culture, be it Chile, Spain, China or Beirut attracts me no end. The pleasure is almost sinful when you compare it to the characters who seem to be shallow and their drab background that is either English or American.

The picture of a war torn area that we tend to have in our mind, especially in the Middle East is that of destitution and hopelessness. As we read, realization dawns that people and what makes them tick are more less the same. Women, especially. The antidote to anything that goes wrong – a visit to the spa, a new shade of nail polish, gossip over a cup of tea. And the sexual adventures are matter of fact. Of women. And we think theirs is the permissive society.

What charmed me the most are the women characters. Men are incidental. It is the ladies who rule . They do judge, but in a time of crisis, the sisterhood never lets you down. At every juncture in her life, good are bad, it is the women in her life that supports or tortures her. Their thoughts , the ones which only a woman could think of, are so well brought out that I was literally shocked to learn the author is a man. At last, here is one who understands a woman.

Verdict – Must read, if you love books and strong women characters

4/5

(Rabih Alameddine is a Lebanese-American painter and writer. He was born in Amman, Jordan to Lebanese Druze parents. He grew up in Kuwait and Lebanon, which he left at age 17 to live first in England and then in California.

– source , Wikipedia)