Category Archives: Muse

Kindling my Nook, bungling my book

It’s very unlikely I’ll buy a ebook reader – Amazon’s Kindle or the new Nook, from Barnes and Noble. Even if I ever do, out of curiosity more than anything else, to me they they will always remain a poor surrogate, something of a novelty that I might tinker with or even carry on a flight, but never take seriously. It cannot replace the feel of paper between my fingers, the crisp smell of new print or the seductive mustiness of a crumpling paperback. Most bibliophiles would scarcely trade that romanticism for an electronic screen and scroll bars(or buttons and what have you). So – no. I do not fear Kindle replacing the book stores, or even coming anywhere close. Yet, the PBS News Hour segment on the recent price war in the publishing industry, and on the rise of such devices was intriguing.

Dang! WordPress won’t let me embed the video, so here’s the link: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec09/books_11-02.html (from where you can launch the actual news segment video).

In summary, an ebook reader to me is cool, it’s nice, but it’s just that. The real magic is still in the words.

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Behind the words

I have just begun reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth”. The back cover caught my eye. It is not that I haven’t seen her picture before, and was caught unaware by the fact that she is good looking (quite photogenic too). But the way photograph has been rendered, she could pass for a model, or a film star. While only a fool would buy a book based on an author’s looks, there is no denying the fact it has become increasingly common to flaunt it if you’ve got it, and perhaps even if you haven’t. So what if JL was a buck toothed hag with a De Niro mole on her nose and about as photogenic as a crow? I am sure that the photograph would be either missing or much subdued. What I am not so sure of is whether this is a phenomenon chiefly pertaining to women writers. Perhaps.

Nonetheless, one must learn not to take blurbs on book jackets seriously. The photograph merely makes up for the missing ones, and enhances the rest. One shouldn’t unduly bother with correlations between their fulsome promise and the quality of the actual writing, which, in this case, is surprisingly high.

 

jhumpalahiri

 

A writer of the caliber of JL needs such accoutrements only for those who have not experienced her earlier works, most notably “Interpreter of Maladies” – a gem of a collection. I admire her unornamented style, very much contrary to the glitzy marketing snapshot, but equally, if not more, arresting. She’s a shining example of what talent and a good writing school degree can do to someone with luck. The luck factor is of course required for winning fame and recognition, awards. And her good looks are only a part of her good fortunes.

Literary potshots

In Fury, a Salman Rushdie character (Prof. Solanka) flays Hemingway, calling him the “most effeminate” of novelists, or something to that effect. It suits Rushdie, his writing leaning towards the opposite spectrum of literary style.

A few years down the line, Rohinton Mistry writes in Family Matters –

“…Yezad felt that Punjabi migrants of a certain age were like Indian authors writing about that period, whether in realist novels of corpse-filled trains or in the magic-realist midnight muddles, all repeating the same catalogue of horrors about slaughter and burning, rape and mutilation, foetuses torn out of wombs, genitals stuffed in the mouths of the castrated.”

– obvious references to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Mistry makes up for it when Yezad is immediately penitent:

“…He knew they had to keep telling their story, just like Jews had to theirs, about the Holocaust…”

 

It is interesting to see some mudslinging between authors, through their own medium, a license to criticize one of the small pleasure’s of a writer’s life.

A distant world, Part III : Siliguri

Read Part II

I am at last headed for Bengal. North Bengal, where I was born. Where I spent my growing up years. In Delhi, the plane sits on the runway, delaying our departure for almost an hour. Who cares about the North East? Backward, dilapidated, a laggard in the economic growth seizing the whole country.

As the plane prepares to land in the little airport, green fields, trees, and silvery gray of a sinewy river come closer, dotted with quaint little houses. No concrete jungle here, or an expanse of urban waste, or slums. But for how long?

Signs of change are visible here as well. A new road leading out of the airport to the highway, more vehicles and people. And of course the ubiquitous cycle rickshaws. We pass by the University campus of my childhood, its surroundings unrecognizable in the mushrooming habitations on both sides of the highway.

The small town where my parents live, is no longer that small. Besides multiplying traffic and people, the city is experiencing the same retail and construction boom going on in other parts of urban India. The town I knew is lost, hidden behind a throbbing, pulsating city of neon signs, swanky malls, newer cars and two wheelers, and people dressed more dandily than before, sporting global brands and contemporary, cosmopolitan cuts. But artifacts of the old are still visible, still vibrantly available. The decadent rickshaw wallah, lean and well muscled, but somehow never fed well enough, his hollow cheeks belying fashionable jogging trousers. The overcrowded bazaar, where one has to practice the art of skillful dodging, of humans, rickshaws and two wheelers, and at the same time balance oneself carefully in motion while ensuring not to step on a mashed fruit or rotten vegetable or discarded sputum. Roads are still quite freely used as litter grounds as much as for transportation, a thing quite common in most Indian cities. Sweep sweep sweep your own yard, and off it goes into the streets. I don’t understand how difficult it can be to collect the rubbish and dispose it in community bins. Waste bins, of course, are a scarcity. One would first have to have these set up in much greater numbers.

But there are perks. The fresh taste of Bengal, in sweets, in repasts, not easily available anywhere else. Rosogolla, misthi doi, rasmalai, singara, kochuri, rolls, chops and cutlets with rich, flavorful fillings, the list goes on. The roadside sabji market with really fresh produce at prices one could only dream of in the developed world.

 

I am home at last. After four long years. Closer to five than four. Among people whose language runs in my blood, which spread through my veins to imperceptible yet solidly permanent corners of my being, and which has not diluted by disuse. Back with my parents, who make me feel like a child, its needs easily taken care of at the drop of a hat. Their affection knows no bounds of geography or economy. Back in a country that is maturing into a fast growing economy to take its bold, confident steps in the liberal, global stage from the fledging, tottering ones that had begun over a decade ago. A country with deep roots dating back thousands of years. And myriad, complex problems of the present dogging its every progressive move. A country which, after hundreds of years of rape and plunder, is bouncing back, reshuffling its garb to emerge into its new avatar, to provide a shelter of peace and prosperity for its umpteen citizens, but being mired in conflicting forces of separatism and disintegration, for selfish political motives or genuine concern in underdeveloped sections, regions which are, should be, as much a part of any economic benefit.

It is a tough, uphill journey. But one India must see through. To honor its past. To cherish the present. To spread the vibrant, upbeat mood among more and more of its denizens in the future. I am, will be, a part of it, no matter how distant, in miles, I am.

A distant world, Part II : Delhi

Read Part I

 

I travel up north, to Delhi. Crowded city bursting at its seams. An excess of traffic and humans jostling for space in roads frequently interrupted with construction work. New roads, wider roads, flyovers, hotels. To accommodate more and more. People, motors, business. To claim more and more. Open spaces, green vistas to gray. Boom or bust?

I had been to Delhi once before, for a very short visit. And hated it. There really isn’t any genuine reason. My acquaintance with the city is too limited to pass an opinion. Perhaps it was the heat then, arid and enervating. It is cool now, being winter. But the city itself does not evoke anything conciliatory. Familiarity breeds contempt, so they say. In my case, the feelings for Delhi stem from unfamiliarity, though contempt is too strong a word to describe it. Disinclination is a closer word. Or perhaps aversion. A city I would avoid if I could. But there are places in Delhi I am eager to see, for their historical worth. Red Fort, Purana Quila, Tombs, gardens. The heritage of the great Mughals. The seat of power in the subcontinent for a thousand years. Or is it thousands? Indraprastha, the city of kings, the capital. The center of power, strategy and diplomacy. Yet somehow I feel all its heritage fails to give Delhi any character, unlike the distinctive airs of Kolkata or Mumbai. Unfamiliarity? I’ll have to wait, years or forever, to know, due to my disinclination and aversion. Certainly not in this trip, where I have about two days, which includes a Monday, when the Red Fort (and perhaps other monuments) are closed. Meanwhile, I’ll please myself with the opinion that Delhi as a city is highly overrated.

 

On Sunday, I visit a memorial originally built for the British soldiers in the 1857 uprising. This was later, in 1972, re-dedicated to the heroic revolutionaries.

1857 Memorial plaque

 

 

On Monday, to visit India Gate, I take the Delhi Metro, which is crowded, but fast and efficient, and clean. Cleaner and newer than subways in many mega cities. It is windy, the warmth of the winter sun somewhat diluted in its sudden surges. And dust. It is hard to find a place in the subcontinent without dust. The wind blows it around in swirls as we appreciate the magnificent structure of the gate, a dedication to the soldiers who lost their lives in the first world war. They no longer allow visitors through the gate, to avoid vandalism. A 24×7 flame (Amar Jawan Jyoti) is in vigil within it, to honor the departed, which one can now only see from far.

India Gate

The India Gate has come to be a symbol of India, maybe not as widely as the more illustrious Gateway of India in Mumbai, but certainly equally representative.

Read More (Part III)

A distant world – Part I : Mumbai, Pune

More than four years later. Closer to five than four. The very words I use to describe the gap after which I return to India, for a vacation.

It is a long journey, from where I reside, nestled in the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest of America, to the subcontinent. How many thousand miles? I forget to count, as giant jet planes guzzling who knows how many hundreds of gallons carry me. Over thirty five thousand feet. Forty thousand feet. To Europe. Germany, where I find my feet on the ground between changing planes. Then onwards east. South. From cold, frigid landscapes to places, barring those with substantial gains in elevation, where summer and winter merely makes a difference in how hot and muggy it gets.

Mumbai Pune ExpresswayIndia has changed. Is changing rapidly, with a growing, booming economy. Words I hear often. In the media, from friends who made the trip earlier, between now and the time the since the boom began, soon after I left the shores of my country of birth. Of which I am still a citizen.

And what does the country of my citizenship offer me, when I return after more than four years, closer to five than four? A haze. Smoggy cityscapes in Delhi and Mumbai, where I struggle to understand if it is fog or pollution which has made things blurry. Traffic scene just as unruly as I have ever known but have, in the past several years, been reconditioned into something more orderly. Better airports in transitory states. Cleaner washrooms in the toilets (at least in Delhi), which have tissue papers, air blowers, automatic sensor flushes. Signs of a progressive economy stepping into the global scene. Massive billboards have grown like unchecked weeds along the expressway to Pune from Mumbai. They sell new homes. Real Estate industry selling promises of lush green in a world severely different from the dessicated terrain through which the highway cuts across. Through the rocky gray yellow green Deccan plateau. 2 BHK, 3 BHK. With parks, children’s play areas, club houses, in a long list of features intended to attract people with far greater spending power than before. People who are not squeamish of taking loans which they will take years and years to repay. Or maybe not, like those who are reaping the benefits of the higher pays and a booming stock market. But where is the growing, booming economy where it is most needed? I still see people scrounging for scraps in rubbish dumps, living in shanties, seeking the cover of rubble and urban waste to defecate in the open. But then, I also see the homeless with hand painted cardboard signs under expressway ramps from where I come. Perhaps the effects of this growing, booming economy are not as pervasive as they are claimed to be. Yet. How many years will it take? A question as difficult to answer as its more Epicurean counterpart: why does the mind become so easily accustomed to new order and customs, in a few years consider as foreign what has been a part of someone’s system since birth?

Knowledge and perspectives enlighten. But what is revealed is not necessarily gloriously triumphant. Bitterness goes hand in hand with truth.

So what does it feel like, when I return, after more than four years, closer to five than four? Nothing. A strange silence where I was expecting joyous uplifting trumpets. The dusty Deccan plateau does not feel like home, though that is where I had lived for years before migrating west, to temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest. I remember Bengal, where I was born, which I left behind. The lush greenery from the frame of the flight window on descent six years ago when I returned, after a shorter interval of absence from the country of my birth, whose citizenship I still possess. My joyful anticipation, the rise of an emotion I feel when dwarfed by ascending mountain peaks, by the clouds, trees and forests of a Himalayan vista. All that has become history. Soaked up by distance and time. Awaiting resurgence.

Read More (Part II)

 

Online is fun, but offline is where it matters

        In the days of pushbutton publishing without the threat of quality control in the form of an editor, it is easy to become a writer or a critic. Yet I wonder how many sincere writers and critics, who toil the internet day after day in the hope of increased readership, will ever get to see their words in physical shape, in the blackness of ink on paper that smells of newness. The magic of the printed word – in that first story, essay or novel making it through the barbs of censure and heaps of submission – brings much joy to the heart of an aspiring writer, besides elevating one’s status with that formidable adjective prefixed to their nomination: “published author”, published still meaning the print medium.

But despite success in print, many authors today maintain an online presence, not as a source of their primary work but as an introductory platform, prompting a surfer to dig deeper, buy one’s books, or partake in discussions of mutual interest. The widespread reach and easy accessibility of the internet has rendered it a very viable and valuable source for useful literary information – from book reviews and critiques through countless blogs to lecture notes and reading topics of students and teachers. Universities use it to dispense online courses, and some, like MIT, have thrown open their cyber doors to one and all, many of their courses available for free. Here’s a link to the MIT Open Coursweare available for Literature: http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Literature/

There’s no denying the fact that the internet and its associated technologies have forever altered our reading and writing habits, enabling us to disseminate our opinions freely while making it easy to elicit information of interest. In the future, I can only see this influence grow, not only in numbers, but in the depth and quality of the participants.

However, I cannot imagine the cyber word replacing its printed counterpart. There’s a solid, timeless feel to a book that can never be achieved online. There’s also the fear of short attention spans and flickering interests deterring the serious publisher or writer. And ultimately, there’s the wall of quality that one must scale to reach “Published” heights, which of course with sufficient infrastructure is not unachievable online, say in the form of paid subscriptions.

But even there, I doubt if the user will not prefer clicking the print menu from the browser after logging in, to feel the magic of the ink on paper.