Author Archives: lostriver
The neon lights flickered fitfully as Lisa walked down the now motionless escalator, one of the stragglers going home at midnight to cold dinners and indifferent beds. She and her companions, acquaintances by sight, were regulars on the last train at night, alighting in ones and twos at the stations on the North-East line. No crowds surged in to push them backwards, imperilling their exit; the bullet-like whoosh was the only sound they heard as the train chugged forward through the cavernous tunnels, being swallowed into the darkness and disgorged again, intact, by sterile, white-lit platforms.
Lisa stepped off the escalator and sat down on the nearest steel bench, sitting down with her back arching uncomfortably against the odd angular curve of the cold chair. She smoothed her brown uniform skirt over her knees and fished in her large, square handbag for one of her newly-bought paperbacks. These were about the only books she read now, fresh off the press but then gathering dust in supermarkets, spines cracked and pages thumbed by various uninterested fingers. She almost felt a sort of pity for these neglected books, lovingly sent into the world by writers who thought their fortune was made at last, but then trashed and denigrated by harsh criticism, ensuring the author was never heard of again. They were books with stereotypical covers, raised gold letters and extravagant blurbs; they didn’t make any demands on her intellect at that unearthly hour, when all she wanted to do was stumble into bed, too tired even to dream.
You read far too much, said her friends at work, when she had burst upon them, bespectacled and glowing with the pride of her newly obtained college degree. The timing wasn’t too good for her, though- she wasn’t wanted where she wished to go, so off she went disconsolately to assist at one of the numerous fashionable shops dotting the island. There may not have been enough jobs, but there still was plenty of money. The rich continued to buy diamond-encrusted watches for their lovers, and she waited on them. She would meet some interesting people this way, she thought, and write about them. She would be discovered. All she needed was patience.
So when her slightly bemused, vaguely respectful colleagues had accused her of reading too much, she initially waved an autocratic hand at them. Reading feeds the imagination, she had said, thinking of the worlds she fled into when the demons of reality bore down heavily upon her. The idealism she worshipped was the stuff of legend, the halo she imbued herself with existed only in the world she had imagined into existence, piece by piece.
Sadly though, Lisa missed the bus when adulthood beckoned. She forgot to grow up, and realized too late that the companions of her childhood had gone ahead, leaving her behind with her own fairy dust, a grown-up Disney princess swathed in pink gauze and wearing ribbons in her hair.
The transition had been difficult, but almost complete. Realising that she was capable of love surprised her pleasantly; knowing that she could have her heart broken made life seem worthless for a while. She thought a lot, and she thought deeply. The names she assumed changed- she was no longer a Bathsheba or an Irawati, but plain Lisa. Two syllables, rolling easily off the tongue, with no quirks of pronunciation. She was getting herself a new identity, becoming a new individual. She didn’t want a sparkly tiara on her greying hair. The veneer of refinement faded as she settled into her role of working girl, imagining, in moments of romantic weakness, that she was living the life of Lily Bart without the suitors. Those who had started the journey with her had struck out on their own, going their own separate ways, meeting occasionally to celebrate spouses and jobs; she had- by some stroke of misfortune?- kept her hermetic life intact. The real and the presumed still confused her, but she was getting better at sieving the ideas presented to her, learning that the inner child that had to be guarded wasn’t physical, but purely platonic.
The last train whooshed into the station and Lisa looked up with a start. In three quarters of an hour, she would be walking home past the restaurant with its little cluster of smoking men, their cigarettes creating single points of light amidst the silhouettes of the ornamental plants that lined its front. Their beer cans would be crushed and discarded on the pavement in due course, and she would pick her way through them distastefully, muttering at their capacity for idleness, then pull up short as she remembered her own situation. Maybe they were stragglers, and perhaps she belonged with them, too. She’d know in a few years
JG Farrell was only forty-four when he died in a fishing accident- considering his tremendous talent and the amount of insight he brought to his books, it was a genuine tragedy.
He is perhaps most well known for his Empire trilogy, which consisted of Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip– novels about British colonialism and its effects on the colonies.
I read his Booker Prize winning Troubles a few months ago and found it extremely riveting. Though I had only a basic idea of Ireland’s problems with Britain, the lack of a proper background wasn’t a problem as I read Farrell’s excellent novel about the Troubles of Northern Ireland. One thing that I’d definitely vouch for is Farrell’s ability to entrance and keep the reader engrossed; not for one moment did I feel my attention waver, and finishing one of his books always makes me feel as if I were being torn away from a world I’ve learnt to know and love, despite all its faults.
I have just finished The Siege of Krishnapur. It was a strange coincidence that I read it during the week which, 154 years ago, marked the start of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (only realising it later). The trouble started on 10 May, 1857, when a group of sepoys rebelled against the army of the British East India Company in Meerut. Discontent had long been simmering for various reasons, and the last straw came in the form of the new Enfield rifles whose paper cartridges had to be bitten off before use; the paper was supposedly greased with animal fat, which was an affront to religious sentiments. The unrest as Meerut spread gradually to various areas, including Lucknow, Kanpur and other parts of northern and central India. Farrell writes an account of the defence at a town called Krishnapur (is it the Krishnapur of West Bengal’s Hooghly district?)- as I have always viewed the Great Rebellion from an Indian perspective, it was interesting, for a change, to see it with British (or Irish, to be more apt) eyes.
The Collector of Krishnapur senses trouble, and he begins setting up fortifications around the Residency in the form of much laughed-at ‘mud walls’; the British population in Calcutta is amused at his caution as he goes visiting various important people to advise them of the brewing trouble. His warnings are not taken seriously, but he perseveres with the fortification of the Residency, thus dividing the British in the area into two groups, those who are for caution and those for assault.
Gradually, though, in the face of the mounting attack from the Indian sepoys, the Britishers are forced into shelter at the Residency, turning the place upside down with their various possessions scattered about amidst the Collector’s prized trophies from the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. The women are herded into the once-serene billiard room, while the others occupy various other nooks and corners. That the situation outside the walls of the Residency is delicate and there will be a paucity of food and water does not bother its refugees; they persist in maintaining their class distinctions. Petty fights break out among the women over the use of the one maid available; they persist in ostracising the ‘fallen woman’ who has been talked out of committing suicide and been persuaded to take shelter in the Residency.
Farrell’s skill is evident in the strength of the characters, each of them being endowed with just the right attributes that serve to make them what they are, leading to their glory or doom. No one is absolutely good or bad, but in fact possesses the mixture of qualities so apparent in people all around. The Collector, struggling with the need to stay composed in the face of adversity, maintains a tenuous relationship with the cynical Magistrate. The doctors Dunstaple and McNab are diametrically opposite in nature; the one happily kind and comforting, the other a dour Scotsman, the tension between them reaching a climax as one of them goes into decline. Louise Dunstaple and newly-widowed Miriam Fleury forge a friendship based on necessity, grudgingly accepting the ‘fallen’ Lucy Hopkins and fearing the attraction she exerts on the men of the cantonment. Harry Dunstaple, young and eager to find himself in the middle of action, finds his lot thrown in with the poetic George Fleury, to whom everything must take the shape of words, and who tries to demonstrate his love for Louise as well as he can in the rather constrained circumstances.
The most haunting character, the one that really lingered on in my head, was that of the Padre: walking around distributing tracts, protesting against the heathenism of the natives as he saw the religion he couldn’t comprehend (living in Krishnapur, as he said to himself, named after a heathen god himself), spouting theology viciously at the Collector as he tried to grapple with more earthly issues in the offal-strewn lawns of the Residency. He dug graves for the dead before they began to be dumped into a well, and grudgingly granted Father O’Hara a plot for his Catholic dead; spectre-like, he walked around in the early hours of dawn, praying for deliverance and marvelling at the magnitude of the sin around himself.
Honest, earthy and moving in its depiction of human nature, The Siege of Krishnapur definitely ranks among the best books I’ve ever read.
Little can compete with the atrocities of the Indian summer.
Endless kilometres of land lie parched in the sweltering heat; where there once was verdant greenery now grow straggly brown plants, struggling out of the crevices on hard brown ground, choking in heat-induced suffocation. Cows forage for food in the tiny patches of green that have braved the merciless rays of the white-hot sun blazing in colourless skies. The normally hardy, mange-infected stray dogs are now docile and acquiescent- they seek the relative coolness of tree shade, their usual numerous ferocious scrums restricted to situations where absolutely necessary- it is just too hot to scratch or fight. Enervated birds chirp listlessly at noon, sequestered in their leafy canopies till the sun begins its descent and they can go grubbing again. The butterflies flit out only when they cannot help it any longer; where do they get their nourishment from, now that flowers are only sadly faded, drooping shadows of their former healthy selves?
In the little market across the road, the one-roomed shops have their shutters firmly drawn down against the heat. Even the small Hanuman and Shani temples in the vicinity have been closed and locked up- god or insect, the summer is uniformly unsparing in its ferocity. The area will begin to buzz again about six in the evening, when the owner of the tea stall puts out four rickety stools on the pockmarked remains of the road in front of his shop. His regular customers settle down with their kulhads of cha in one hand, cigarette in the other, dressed in cotton shirts and kurtas, and gossip the evening away, even as the mound of discarded earthen cups nearby piles up steadily.
The evening might bring respite from the sullen, dead hush that lies over the quietly sleeping town, saved from being sepulchral only by the vast, wide, dusty yellowness that pervades the thick languor. The stir of life, the only fresh breath that billows through comes from hope and anticipation, from the collective sigh of the owners of the keen eyes that look towards the horizon, divining or actually sighting that elusive grey rim.
The news of Osama bin Laden’s killing yesterday swept everything else off our news channels.
The search for the missing helicopter carrying Arunachal Pradesh CM Dorjee Khandu was forgotten, as was the Air India pilots’ strike. The political hysteria that would normally have looked forward to the election today in Singur and Nandigram- two important cogs in the West Bengal wheel- was conspicuous by its absence. The IPL has taken a backseat, as have Kate-and-William’s honeymoon plans and the Canadian elections- if they were ever in the picture.
Who really decides what should actually be on the radar of news channels and other media outlets? While it is true that bin Laden’s death is major news that will have wide repercussions, was it entirely right to shut out all domestic news in favour of debate and discussion on Operation Geronimo? That India has a lot to worry about in terms of security is nothing new, and analysing the aftermath of the American operations in Pakistan is indeed imperative considering India’s geographical and ideological situation. This, however, doesn’t mean that life will not go on as usual.
News channels tend to go on an overdrive whenever things remotely of note happen; they have of course upped the sensation levels now that the nearly ten-year-old struggle following the terrorist attacks of September 11 has reached its climax. This still doesn’t warrant the blinkered news coverage that was on offer on every single news channel. What happened to unbiased reporting and global coverage? The British media went crazy over the royal wedding, but the BBC did manage to squeeze in a few minutes of international news even as Mishal Husain wielded the mike for hours with the wedding pomp and pageantry for a backdrop.
The constant coverage of the operation leading to bin Laden’s death had its moments of bloopers- newscasters kept confusing Osama with Obama. (I admit it must have been a pretty hard day at work for them, repeating the words ‘in fact’ and ‘actually’ everytime the camera panned on something they didn’t have a script for.) The quality of news broadcasting is determined not just by the people who host the shows, but also by the content. Judging from yesterday’s hoopla and the evident lack of original content, our news channels have a very long way to go.
When I first read Virginia Woolf, I wasn’t perhaps in the right frame of mind for it; I let frivolity and impatience cloud my first-ever reading of a stream-of-consciousness work in To The Lighthouse, and didn’t treat it with the respect it deserved.
Now, having read Mrs. Dalloway, I am in awe of Virginia Woolf. The clarity with which she puts forth the convoluted workings of the human mind are astounding- the various characters who weave themselves in and out of one another’s lives as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for her party come together in an intricate tapestry, and how real it seems!
Clarissa Dalloway, recovering from an illness, goes about preparing for a party, reminiscing as she does so over the circumstances that led her to marry Richard Dalloway instead of Peter Walsh, the man with whom she walked the woods and had innumerable arguments. She dwells over her love for brash Sally Seton and ruminates on the kiss they once shared. As she sits mending her torn dress for the party, she is visited by Walsh- now back from his long stay in India, unhappily married, and now in love with a married mother of two. She invites him to her party; he is not sure he should attend. Her husband brings her flowers as he returns from lunch at Lady Bruton’s; smarting at not being invited, she asks if she was inquired after. She stands uneasily with Miss Kilman, her daughter’s German-born teacher who detests parties and finds solace in religion and food.
Woolf picks people off the streets of London and examines their lives. Fresh from the First World War, people are still putting their lives back together; Septimus Warren Smith, sitting on a park bench with his Italian wife, is pondering over his crimes. He will not get a patient hearing, however, because the two doctors who examine him have diametrically opposing views, and what he does with himself in the course of the day carries its own reverberations to Clarissa’s party. She is angered that the misfortunes of a man she doesn’t know should inflict themselves on her party in the shape of the doctor and his wife who arrive late, bearing those sad tidings- but she is convinced that the party is a success. Peter Walsh is there, as are Sally Seton and her elderly aunt. Why, the Prime Minister is also present, being talked of with a sort of awe in hushed tones.
The minute examination to which Woolf subjects her characters is admirable. Splitting the day amongst the people who populate Clarissa’s life directly or indirectly, she drifts in and out of their heads, tackling the themes of suicidal depression and homosexuality, and life in general. Slights, disappointments, jealousy, inexpressible happiness- the vagaries of life and human reaction to them are duly dealt with. Can’t you just see yourself there, in transports of bliss one moment, grappling with trivialies the next? The past presses upon us even as we make our way into the future, the present manufacturing memories that combine and occupy their niches in the subconscious, dormant until roused to sudden activity by the smallest stimulus.
Mrs. Dalloway is a book to be absorbed and dwelt upon- and re-read.
Dawn is just breaking in the eastern steel town of Durgapur on this delightful Sunday morning, different from the rest in that India has just won the Cricket World Cup and this unpretentious little town is in the grip of a pleasant hangover. The hard mud on the streets is stained with colour, and posters of various members of the Indian cricket team at different stages of their careers flutter in the balmy morning breeze.
At the small, shabby bus-stop at Benachity, there is no news-stand; or perhaps there is one whose owner is still lying in a victory-induced stupor, reluctant to be awakened from his thrilling dream-like reality into the more pragmatic demands of his work. The compact, colourful, slightly dubious-looking bus we have just boarded creaks and groans as the passengers trickle in, settling themselves on its very tiny seats. The driver and conductor linger outside in the fresh air for a last whiff of their cigarettes before shutting themselves in for the long, rather unsettling five-hour drive on not the best roads in the country.
A festive atmosphere is palpably visible even on the almost deserted streets; last night’s revelry has left clear signs of the transports of delight that this town has been sent into, thanks to the exploits of a bunch of much venerated men on the cricket field. As always, sport has proved its ability to unite and uplift, and what can be more fitting in India than securing the most prized possession in the game played in every street, nook and cranny of its tiniest village! A bus passes ours, accoutred in festal adornments, a largely blue poster of Indian cricketers pasted on a corner of its windscreen. Elsewhere, ashes lie thick on two clay lamps on a platform, in front of garlanded, tilak-adorned posters of Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar- the prowess of the cricketers on the field has indubitably been aided by plenty of prayers.
The bus sails down a section of the Grand Trunk Road, NH2, before taking a detour- which actually lasts almost the entire length of the journey- through various hamlets in West Bengal’s Burdwan district. (Burdwan was actually Bardhaman- I assume an Englishman couldn’t have cared less about the correct way to pronounce the name of an obscure Indian district during the long years of colonialism.) On the highway, this early, vehicles are few; predatory birds swoop down on carrion- probably a stray dog startled by a truck rearing down on it full throttle. Automobile repair shops begin to raise their shutters slowly and send out for their first tea trays.
The ancient springs and joints of the bus creak with the shrillness of a bird in captivity as it jolts over practically non-existent roads, stopping with a sudden jerk in the middle of nowhere to pick up a passenger. We are in the heart of rural India, which, though untouched by much progress and hard-pressed to eke out a proper living, sees tea stalls displaying bright packets of potato chips and sachets of shampoo concocted by foreign experts. A man goes out to relieve himself on a thinly wooded slope; elsewhere, women gather dung in baskets and pat it onto the mud walls of their thatched huts. The drying fuel bears imprints of the fingers of their work-calloused hands. The ’road’ presses past cowsheds where men are having their first glasses of tea, and a warm, not unpleasant dairy odour wafts in through the open window. Breakfast is being made ready in tin-roofed shanties, golden jalebis and samosas sizzling sibilantly in large, soot-blackened cauldrons. It is a hard life here, but these men and women work uncomplainingly. Their brown faces break into ready smiles, and they don’t frown or wince as they pack themselves tight, skin rubbing against sweaty skin, paunch getting in the way, in these tiny buses (or on top of them). The women wear the brightest colours imaginable, their washing fluttering in the wind or spread out to dry on grassy slopes consists of sarees in the loudest hues of yellow, purple, orange and green. They bathe in small muddy ponds and wring their clothes out in the same infested water; these are the people who will play a major part in deciding the future of the state in the forthcoming elections. Greedy vote-seeking frenzy is in evidence on the walls of low-roofed buildings in the shape of crudely-painted party symbols and slogans. Party flags, alternating with the Indian tricolour brought out for the World Cup, are stretched out between poles. What has been done or will be done to improve the lot of these villagers is an open-ended question- the most untrained eye can see the lack of basic amenities in these villages even during a fleeting trip through their roads.
The sun is beginning to rise in the sky and tinge the cool morning breeze with its warmth. The sky is a cloudless, hazy white, forming a pretty complement to the dazzling green of the paddy fields. The smooth low carpet is furrowed by brown irrigation channels, and out of the seeming smoothness startlingly rise small copses of trees- which came first, the trees or the fields? The countryside is generously dotted with ponds, their surfaces glistening and untroubled in the distance, but textured by ripples as they come closer and catch the rays of the sun.
Village follows village on this narrow trail, and occasionally the bus breaks out in relief on an almost unhindered course on a series of potholes, the only obstruction coming in the form of stray goats that wander into the path of “civilisation”, before squeezing itself into yet another hamlet and rubbing shoulders with cycles and motorised rickshaws. The bus halts for a while at Katwa and allows a number of vendors to come on board: ’Pepsi’ in orange, cola and lemon is being sold in the shape of ice candies in narrow tubular plastic covers, as are various other candies, the wares being called out in Bengali in strident, confident tones. Having disgorged most of its burden, the bus sets off again with that last, heartening burst of enthusiasm that comes from knowing that the destination is not far away. Alas, this is the worst stretch of the journey, the most nerve-wracking and joint-wringing of all, and it is with mixed feelings and slightly enervated enthusiasm that we disembark at the rickshaw-stand in the pilgrim town of Nabadwipdham.
When you land in Durgapur, fresh from the sanitised ostentation of Bangalore and the politically charged flag-waving cheer of Kolkata, the sudden quietness of this peaceful small town comes as rather a shock- especially when you realise that this place is going to be home for the next six months. You can no longer complain about there being too many malls in the city, exorbitant auto fares and boring weekends. The numerous trees, clean and well laid out roads and abundant numbers of birds should rightly be more enjoyable than all the trappings of urban living; I admit, then, that three years of living in three different cities have effectively ruined me for a quiet life out on the prairies or the moors (like I’d once hoped to have).
I’d like to conveniently rest part of the blame on living with people my age- you can’t even watch Splitsvilla with your parents, let alone curse the copious amounts of inanity on it- but on the flipside, you don’t have to worry about which take-away your next meal is coming from, so all’s well. Now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I can introduce you to Durgapur. And we begin our virtual tour at Bhiringi More, which opens into a street lined with shops and populated by that portion of Durgapur which isn’t flocking to the newly opened Junction Mall.
The shelves in the display case of ‘Khawa-Dawa’ are lined with metal trays; a man carries in a tray of syrupy brown gulab-jamuns and spills them into a waiting plate. Fingers splayed, he rolls his hand on the sweets, spreading them out, all notions of hygiene thrown to the wind. A customer scratches his ankle with his key before attacking his ras-malai, while his son points to a heap of fly-encrusted squares of mysore-pak. My sanitiser-toting self cringes; but it is a generally accepted truth that food cooked and eaten in unhygienic conditions is delicious, provided you’re prepared to ignore the after-effects.
The lights flicker and go off. Emergency lamps, giving out thin slivers of neon light, are turned on to brighten the dingy interiors of not-so-welcoming hardware shops and restaurants. ‘Kwality Lodge’ next door promises ‘veg., non-veg. & delicious food’ at the restaurant downstairs- quite a choice there- as floral curtains billow on the balcony in the breeze rising gently now, revealing doors behind which perhaps a budding writer is hard at work. (Yes, I am thinking of Rusty!)
In this part of Durgapur, Bhiringi, the roads are chock-full of pedestrians, rickshaws and two-wheelers. Occasionally, the outrageously coloured cuboidal tin boxes on wheels that pass for ‘mini-buses’ lumber by; they are packed with people sitting or holding on for dear life as they press against one another in the narrow aisle. The single door is always half-open, kept suspended in mid-air by the agile body of the conductor who calls out for people to join the merry fraternity within the bus. It lurches to a stop without warning, disgorging and swallowing, unleashing frenzied cries from pedestrians and passengers alike. If you’re on a two-wheeler, you’re sure to be reminded of the “accelerator-clutch-brake” advertisement on TV. Or the “streets are full of idiots” ad.
The shops are colourless, much like one another and uninspiring. Dust lies thick on the plastic sheets clothing stuffed toys and the glass counters displaying knick-knacks. A brand new furniture shop, freshly whitewashed and splendidly lit (and evidently provided with a noisy generator), stands out like a resplendent beacon of hope- of what exactly, I cannot tell at this point. A spooky, vine-covered building hulking in the dark turns out, on closer inspection, to be a school; it could well have emerged unscathed from the 1857 Mutiny. The general vapidity and uniform boredom of the area would make an early twentieth-century Main Street in Oklahoma sound like paradise. Some day, though, this place will awake with a start and spring a surprise. I know I should be revelling in the quiet and that not too long ago I raved over the advantages of small-town life. So I’ll also warn you now about the difficult transition it can be, when you move down from a city that has JustBooks, HRC and a house full of boisterous girls.
As I write, an unseen vehicle mounted with a loudspeaker is passing by, extolling the virtues of Monday in Bengali (or so I think). We’re waking up already!
Roddy Doyle thought thus about receiving books as presents when he was ten: “Books weren’t presents. I loved books, but they were a bit like food. I loved chicken, but a leg in wrapping paper would have been a huge disappointment.” (Look here for the full article.)
I have always loved receiving books as presents. The first time I ever received any was at the end of Class 1, when we were moving away from Bhilai, my class teacher gave me two books; one a children’s dictionary and the other a book of short stories.
I have no idea why she chose to give me books instead of a game or a doll as other people were wont to, but I think she was a very wise woman. On a long day alone at home (and newly unemployed, I’m going to have several), there is nothing that keeps you company like a book and your imagination. The book of short stories carried the tale of a princess who loved good things to eat and was thrilled by Turkish Delight, and for some reason I interpreted it as a whole recipe. I was determined to make it at home- I had decided it was something akin to pink-coloured, rose-flavoured ice candy- and I got as far as making ice cubes. I had not the vaguest notion of how to proceed from there, and whiled away the rest of the afternoon sucking at the ice cubes and hoping they’d somehow turn pink and rose-flavoured.
I could have been excused at that age for such ill-informed ideas; but what got into me during one summer vacation when I was fourteen or fifteen, I’ll never know. I had grand plans to make reasonable inroads into my father’s vast library; I ended up reading only two books in those two months. One was Larry Collins/Dominique Lapierre’s O’Jerusalem– I read it very eagerly, appalled and enthralled by turns at the courage of the people fighting for what they believed in, and the means to which they were prepared to resort. I finished it pretty quickly and began Frederick Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest, and I still blush to think I took so long to finish it. Part of the blame I can conveniently lay on my imagination- in the dim, curtained room, door closed and AC turned on, it was very easy to believe you were in the depths of a thick forest, the light barely let in by heavy foliage, fighting Roundheads with simple handmade weapons and weeding small plots of land. I stopped short at imagining I was having wild boar for dinner, because my vegetarian sensibilities rule over the romantic.
It isn’t always easy to adapt a book on film, and several movies manage to warp the very idea of the book and create cardboard characters who seem the very antithesis of their originals in the book. Watching a movie made out of a book can be a very traumatic experience particularly if you live and swear by the book. Looking up adaptations of Little Women this morning, I stumbled upon a 1978 version, where the actress playing twelve-year-old Amy looked older and wiser than I do at this ripe old age of mine. An adaptation of Anne of Green Gables featured a pedestrian-looking Anne Shirley, without the spark of the eyes or the vim of speech that makes the legendary redhead the heroine that she is. An insult to the writer’s imagination is what I call these shoddy adaptations.
Skipping lunch and writing this makes me feel a bit like Jo March, but I don’t have a garret, apples, or a wonderful idea for a story, so I’ll just rise now and betake myself to my simple lunch of cold rice, curd and potato chips.
One of the few pleasures of work is a browse at the bookstore in office. Push open the door to this other world, inhale deeply, and you immediately shut out the noise of the clanking glasses at the juice kiosk and the relentless chatter of the crowds thronging the supermarket. Lunch, however, isn’t always the ideal time to go in if you fancy being alone with the books, for there will always be those idiots- yes, I said it- asking at the counter for Chetan Bhagat, when their uninviting spines are already staring them down in the face from the shelves in the Indian authors’ section, ranged alongside the more smug types like Shashi Tharoor and Arundhati Roy.
It takes all kinds to make the world, though, and none of us is above the occasional leave-your-brains-behind easy read, so I’ll move on to my next, more reasonable grudge- people who talk loudly on their cell phones in the otherwise quiet confines of the bookshop, or worse still, let them ring loudly on. Why anybody should be interested in their ring tones I really don’t know. A bookshop should be as sacred as a library when it comes to peace and quiet, but the fact obviously sails smoothly over some people’s heads, so they’ll laugh and giggle and organise games of tug-of-war in the aisles when you’re trying to find a quiet corner where you can forget your latest confrontation with your team lead.
Despite these aberrations, though, the bookshop is still a happy place, thanks to the discoveries you can make. You must know the joy of having coveted a book very, very long and suddenly realising that it is no longer as expensive as it once was- and then you’re prepared to worship the hordes of people who’ve conveniently ignored Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene in favour of Stephenie Meyer. I stumbled upon hardcover editions of The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock and Vile Bodies in this fashion. (Only Decline and Fall remains unbought, and I’m going to get a copy very soon.) They were sold at throwaway prices for hardcover books, the original price being a prohibitive GBP 5.99. Only Christopher Columbus could have been slightly more ecstatic when he “discovered” America, but on that particular day, you could easily have spotted the happiest person in the world.
However, I did make another discovery today which was by no means as heartening. A sudden impulse to revisit Heidi made me look up the Wikipedia page, and I discovered that its English translator, Charles Tritten, had taken it into his head to write sequels about Heidi’s life as an adult, and about her children as well. I read an abridged version of Heidi when I was around seven, and Heidi has more or less stayed the same age to me. I definitely do not want to think of her as an adult with a family of her own.
One of the charms of the books we read as children lies in the eternal youth of their characters. I have never enjoyed the sequels to What Katy Did or Anne of Green Gables as much as I enjoyed these wonderful celebrations of the captivating innocence of childhood. It’s bad enough for me to have to grow into an adult- so why on earth would I want to be bothered with Anne’s fretting over her children’s attacks of whooping cough? Childhood is about abandon and having somebody else worry for you, trusting and liking everyone you know, throwing tantrums and being ingratiated. Watching young boys and girls grow into adults in books is a premonition of the future, of the distant days best avoided as long as possible (which, with the endearing ineptitude of childhood, you don’t really realise till you’re a full-fledged grown-up). These chronicles of adulthood should be saved for their readers’ own adulthood, when people begin asking why on earth they would want to read juvenile fiction- oh the travails of life!
Only JM Barrie really understood this, and if I knew where Neverland was, I’d be getting on a plane this very moment.
For a change, the cricket World Cup is taking a backseat on Indian news channels.
While the Centre and various state governments have long been guilty of or struggling with scams, corruption and social unrest, there now seems to be a sudden spurt in efforts to bring the culprits to book. Whether they will endure and be brought to closure is yet to be seen, but any step forward is welcome. However, as the investigations proceed, it is evident that the rot runs deep; the scams have resulted in massive losses to the exchequer, and with evasive replies and cover-ups, the government is not helping its cause. The Prime Minister’s press conference was a disappointment. No substantial answers were received, and if anything, it only threw up more questions on the methods through which the wrongdoings of various parties would be reversed. Equating the financial losses to subsidies and pinning the blame for corruption on coalition politics are examples of a weak defence. It smacks of the idea that the only intention of those in power is to stay there at any cost, and the interests of the people do not come into consideration at all. If this is the way a democracy functions, it makes you wonder what the countries in the Middle East agitating for democracy are in for. Stabilising a democracy is by no means an easy task, and considering the responsibilities the new governments will have to take up, the road seems to be going only uphill.
Interestingly, while the Middle East grapples with political problems that involve dethroning the existing leaderships, Belgium is facing a situation of an entirely different nature. The political impasse since last June’s elections has gone on for 250 days now, which means the country has existed without a government this long. It now holds the dubious distinction of having had no government for the longest period in recent times, taking the mantle from Iraq. While this has been a source of some hilarity in Belgium, it isn’t quite the ideal situation, the differences between the Flemish and the French areas asserting themselves and preventing political stability. How much authority does a caretaker government assert, after all? The monarchies of most European nations aren’t involved in major decision-making; they need properly elected governments at the helm of affairs, especially considering there might be important steps to be taken with the unrest in the Middle East. The volatile situation here might be a threat to oil resources and transportation in the Suez Canal. Trade will be affected, and so will the livelihoods of the large numbers of immigrants in the region. Bernie Ecclestone has indicated that the Bahrain Grand Prix, the season-opening race of the 2011 Formula One season, might not go ahead if the state of affairs doesn’t improve. This, however, may only be the tip of the iceberg.
One positive aspect that the protests have made visible is the power of the media- and not just the traditional versions, but new media as well. Facebook and Twitter were used to rally support and mobilise public opinion; though restrictions were eventually imposed, it is apparent they played a huge role in helping the public channelise its hopes and ambitions.
Change is in the air, and hopefully things will take a positive turn here on. It is a rocky road and several difficult issues need to be tackled. It is important for these movements not to lose momentum but to sustain their initial enthusiasm and continue to work for reliable leaderships which will lift them out of poverty and aspire to meet their citizens’ needs. As for democracies like ours, we need to ensure that the corrupt are punished and the country’s wealth properly used- easier said than done, yes, but we have made a start, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t keep going at it.