Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Those days - My love affair with books

My love affair with books started, thanks to my mother and cousin brother. I remember days when I used to go to the annual Chennai book fair with my mother. Oh, how crowded those stalls used to be and how many stalls! It was my cousin brother who introduced me to the world of Famous Five. Julian, Dick, Timothy, George and Anna, if I remember the characters right. It was as if someone pulled the curtains aside to reveal a whole new world, a world much more colourful and adventurous, when compared to the small town life I was leading.

I am unable to recollect when I started reading serious fiction. It was probably not until the first year of my college education. I used to commute from Maraimalainagar to Chrompet, a distance of ~22 kilometres by Chennai's local trains and my favourite pastime during those everyday journeys used to be books. Thanks to my membership at the British Council library in Chennai, I got access to a wide plethora of authors.

Even a break of 3 or 4 hours between classes and I used to catch a bus and head to the library in Mount road. Patiently I used to browse the collection there. There must have been 2 to 3 racks dedicated to works of fiction but what a treasure trove it was. After an hour or so of intense browsing and weighing of options, I used to pick up the one or two books I was eligible to take as part of the membership and then the love affair would start.

F Dostoevsky, Jose Saramago, Iris Murdoch, Christopher Isherwood, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, JM Coetzee, Amit Choudhri, Somerset Maugham, J Krishnamurti, Isabel Allende, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Pat Barker, Helen Dunmore, Amartya Sen, David Davidhar, Kazuo Ishiguro, Khushwant Singh and Orhan Pamuk - Each of these authors, I got introduced to only through that wonderful library. Then there was this set of two or three Orkut friends who I connected with and I started reading the books they talked about and recommended. I remember a phase of classics, a phase of second world war based novels and a phase of novels based on stories set in conflict ridden zones.

As I read, I started maintaining a diary. My own private journal in which I used to jot down the extracts I loved most. Now, am in my second diary but I have sadly become less disciplined. Nowadays, even if I like something I read, I am too lazy to open that diary, take a pen and jot it down. Perhaps, I should not be!

Thanks to an acquaintance I got connected to today, I felt the necessity to put this down. Perhaps, it was long due.

Monday, September 23, 2013

What can then?

The following piece is an assignment I wrote as part of the Bangalore Writers Workshop. We had to write 2 to 6 pages with the following conditions:

  1. We had to construct a scene in the room where our workshop sessions take place
  2. Have real participants of the workshop as part of the story and
  3. Talk about a cause
“How do you arrest the attention of the reader right from the beginning?”

“Do we need to?”

“I thought, it is absolutely necessary”

“Maybe. But honesty and a genuine voice can make up for an ordinary start”

“I concur. What is important is that even if the start is arresting, what follows should be equally compelling!”

It was the fourth session of the bangalore writers workshop and I had begun to love the motley group, I found myself a part of. Sarayu had sparked the interesting discussion about, how possibly, a writer can capture his reader’s attention powerfully in the beginning of his piece. We were beginning to discuss our first reading for the day – an excerpt from Color Purple. I had volunteered to occassionally click pictures during the course of our discussions. When I focused the camera on Diya, her eyes were keenly scanning the course material. In a black shirt and blue jeans, Diya looked simple and elegant but something was bothering her. I was trying to read her expression.  Sitting in-between pulp specialist Manjula and Rheea,  she clearly looked flustered.  

We had been the first few people to reach the class. Our facilitators, Bhumika and Rheea must have been catching up with the news as the television was tuned into Times Now.  Manjula was recounting how her kid was not letting her go to the class by refusing to eat. Diya had walked in when the television was beaming images of a shocked girl who was subjected to abuse by her own uncle. The girl was clearly a minor and had no clue how to tackle the nosy media. Apparently, her uncle had forced her to strip when her parents were out of town. He had fondled her on earlier occassions and the girl was too confused to resist his advances and weird behavior. Bhumika had switched off the television with a sigh. 

Colour Purple is the story of a poor, uneducated, black girl and the extract dealt with her rape and abuse at the hands of her own father. The coincidence with the television news could not be more ironical.  

“I find that not much has changed from the 1930s”, said Anindita. A big fan of Lionel Messi,  she couldn’t have put it better, much like the sharp penalty kicks by her favorite player.
“One of my friends went through something like this”

We turned in unison toward Diya. There was a deathly hush. Rheea switched off the AC and it was as if, the air in the room was getting sucked out. I focused on the calendar hanging on the wall right opposite.  The cover for september showed a little girl clutching the hands of her mother and smiling shyly toward the camera.  It could have melted anyone’s heart. 

“It began when she was eight. He would kiss her hard on the lips, squeeze her bums and press her breasts. He would lift her high into the air in mock joviality. We were good friends since childhood and poor thing, she did not know why her father was doing this.” 

“Did her mother not know anything at all?”, Gitanjali asked, all curious and wearing an incredulous expression. 

“She eventually got to know but not when Teresa was eight. Teresa finally realized that something was not right! At fifteen, if your father says he can hug you only by fondling you all over,  oh no, why am I talking all this now?”

 The door opened and Anna came in to see if any of us needed coffee or tea. As if a spell was broken, the chairs creaked. None of us ordered anything. With a “Thank you sir”, Bhumika saw him out. 

“It is okay Diya, it is always good to talk about these things”, said Rheea. 

“I am frustrated that many of us go through things like this and yet remain silent.”

“Not any more. We should not. What is the use of our freedom if we continue to remain silent!” 
There was a faint urgency to Gitanjali’s voice. 

“Every other day, some guy or the other drives his bike so close to me”

“And some guys stare and stare with no shame at all!” 

“Please don’t think all men are the same”, interjected Pradip. 

“Ofcourse, we are not saying that!”, Diya was quick to respond. 

I could not resist any longer. “Perhaps, as a society we are going through a phase of transition. We have more women entering the workforce, sometimes displacing men, we have more girls passing out of our colleges…but this incident is just not about women. It is about child sexual abuse” 

“A society that tolerates child sexual abuse is a society that can tolerate rape! We are just not punishing these animals enough”, Diya was fuming. 

“No Diya, I am not defending anyone, sorry, if you misunderstood me. We heard yesterday that four men have been given death sentence for raping Nirbhaya. Do you think, it will change the way men look at women?”

“Hardly. It is a change that has to begin at home, that has to come when growing up. It is sad, but I think death sentence will not change anything”, Rheea’s voice had a tinge of calm assurance. 

“What can then?”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The mute spectator

The following piece is an assignment I wrote as part of Bangalore Writers Workshop.  We had to write 2 to 6 pages on 'Art inspires Art'. My inspiration was a painting by the Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh.

He entered the old rail station. Aren’t all rail stations the same, no matter where they are? After all, they only serve to transit people from one place to the other, acting as mute spectators to journeys of mankind. But, somehow, he sensed that this station had a certain charm to it. Was it because a church overlooked it and at this time of the day, one could see the setting sun beyond it? Was it because it was the final station for all trains leaving Austria and entering Germany? Did this fact lend the station an air of finality? Or was it because it rarely saw any visitors? Maybe, it was a combination of all this and something else… 

It had two low benches on each of its two platforms and right behind these benches were the blue colored ticketing machines of the Austrian rail company. His train was not due until 18.00. A chill breeze disturbed the lone can of coke on the platform causing it to rattle across hither and thither. His thoughts wandered…the day had been a tough one. He had just visited his parents and was on his way back to the city. Though they appeared to be doing well, it was quite evident that age was catching up with them quickly. His father’s voice had lost that spark he loved so much and his mother walked with a certain stoop. 

In the last year, since his last visit, the village’s economy had shrunk further. The supermarket, post office, bank and fuel station appeared to be mere remnants of much better times. With the young men and women migrating to cities in search of greener pastures, all that was left of the village was the ageing parents.  Left to themselves, they were too proud to move to the cities. When farming and small businesses were thriving, the village was a lively place. Of late though, it had become a phantom society populated by retired workers. Life seemed to have relegated the village to such a remote corner of its canvas that even the lightest of brushstrokes were impossible. 

A train arrived at the platform opposite. An old lady alighted with her dog by her side. Slowly and firmly, she made her way toward one of the two benches and sat herself down. Standing right across, he was able to see the crevices age had made on her face. She must have been beautiful once. Her face still retained a certain symmetry that must have lined admirers in another age. She carefully laid her walking stick aside. Her dog circled the bench a couple of times before getting bored. He sniffed at the walking stick and wagged his tail lazily. 

Five minutes passed. There was an absolute stillness except for the occasional howls when the breeze gathered pace. The old lady had not moved an inch. She was staring straight ahead. If our man on the platform opposite had moved himself straight into her line of vision and performed a wild dance, in all probability, she would have sat unmoved. There was a curious finality about her gaze. Was she trying to strain herself imagining the future that lay ahead or was she dipping into her memories and reliving them, one by one? How long would she rest like this gazing into nothingness? Was she waiting for someone to come and pick her up? Or was she waiting for the Sun to set before beginning her walk home? 
Just when he began imagining the worst, the dog tugged at her skirt. He hopped on to the bench and laid his head on the lady’s lap. This prompted a touching gesture from the lady. She ran her hand gently across the dog’s face beginning from his ears. The dog moaned and snuggled closer to her bosom. 

He shifted his gaze. The countryside surrounding the station was beautiful. Vast expanse of fields on one side lent it an eerie silence. In the distance beyond the church, the Sun was expending the last rays of its shine for the day.  It was the onset of autumn when days become shorter and the air, colder…soon trees would begin shedding their leaves forming beautifully colored blankets.  

He could not help recollect a poem by his most favorite English poet – ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats where he poses: “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?”  At his age, when the World seemed so full of possibilities, this was a disconcerting thought, evoked perhaps by a combination of his pensive mood and the darkness that was quickly taking over. 

 His journey from this village to the city had not been easy. His childhood was spent cycling and hiking in the ranges bordering the village. As he grew up, he could see that his friends were moving out to pursue university education in the cities. Few came back. Deep down, he did not want to go. So, when he finally did leave, he left with a heavy heart. Memories of the village life used to catch him unaware.

In the beginning, he used to visit often and at every possible opportunity, but slowly, the city devoured his personality. Like a cobra gobbling up its prey, he got slowly drawn in by what it had to offer. The frequency of his visits came down and along with it, his love for the village life.
Something about this evening made him reminisce. The old lady was standing up and picking her walking stick. The dog appeared listless and irritated as if he was forced out of his peaceful reverie. As the lady made her way toward the exit, a bus pulled in. A couple disembarked, presumably people working in the village’s bank.  They held each other’s hand and as they passed by the old lady, wished her a good evening.  

The couple reached the platform he was waiting in and locked each other in a gentle embrace. Their arrival and their cheerful mien lifted his spirits. He thought of his girlfriend waiting for his return. Lights came on to illuminate the desolate platform. The hands of the church clock became visible in the distance. He could not help but think, he just witnessed an unusual change of seasons: from the gloominess accompanying autumn to the promise accompanying spring, albeit a delusional one. As if on cue, the breeze picked up. A sense of relief washed over him. 

He wanted to shout out an answer to the long departed poet: “Here are the songs of spring!” If he had, his voice would have been drowned by the sound of the arriving train.