Tuesday, November 22, 2005

You got here first!

Till recently, all I knew about the people who visited my blog was from the comments section – People who left those little (usually) encouraging notes for me – I knew they had been here. For the rest, I had no clue who was reading me, if at all there was anyone out there. A few days ago, however, I enabled one of those little ingenious trackers that keep count of who’s visiting your blog, and whats more, even tell you how they came there, from which other sites and blogs, and in the search for what. Well, atleast I am still ingenuous enough to think that it is ingenious.

I don’t know who it was who said that curiosity killed the cat, but what I found out nearly killed me with laughter. I had a visitor who found me, by searching for – hold your breath – “accidental fame junkie”. Now, regular readers will know that I don’t do celebrity-type posts or paparazzi style crafty things. So I don’t know what this person was looking for, and how they got here, but methinks this blog is on the way to style if it is offering all those things! Watch this space, and you can say you got here first!

ps : The space may be a little dull the next week though, since I am travelling......and not so sure if I will be able to access internet...

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The anatomy of infidelity

Intimacy flows through the open pores of words, sliding in through the nanospaces of silence. Too much, too soon. Songs unsung, words unsaid, skin untouched, yet consumed inside the imaginative working of a hungry mind. Sleeve brushes cuff, a quick furtive conjunction best ignored. Her mind is heavy with the weight of Savitri, Kannagi, Sita, every virtuous woman who lived, and left behind an indecipherable legacy. The anatomy of infidelity dissects itself, acting, reacting, feeling, assigning to itself - the twin doses of pleasure and blame.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A State of Righteousness

The Headmaster opened the lock that held shut the creaking iron gate of the school and scrambled in. It was a burning hot summer day. So hot that the top of his head seemed to be on fire from the short walk from his two roomed house to the school. The sweat stayed heavy on his face till he brought out his rough little towel and wiped it off. He would do this over and over again. There were no air conditioners in this village though he had heard that the Babus in the city were beginning to have them again now. It was a Sunday but he had come to school to ensure that everything was in place to welcome the American delegation that was visiting them on Monday. Americans. It had been years since he had seen foreigners of any kind. A few of them had continued to visit, in the early days of the Nayi Sarkar when the borders had still been porous. But once the Sarkar had publicly hanged a few of them for ‘inciting public opinion and promoting immorality’ they had stopped. And after that, the borders had been strengthened in any case and no one could come in anymore. Or go out. Now that the Nayi Sarkar regime had been a success, he heard that the Babus wanted to showcase their achievements to a select audience. Small batches of foreigners were therefore carefully being brought in to see all the manufactured happiness of the state paraded before them.

He opened the door of the large classroom with its chatais still lying on the ground. The room was a rectangular one with a blackboard on the wall ahead. It was covered in smells that could be distinguished from one another only with great difficulty. The dry wheezy smell of chalk molecules that had floated and merged into the air. The thickish smell of cow dung from the sheds behind the school. The salty smell of the sweat of hundreds of boys who had gone over their tables here. Two two zare four. Two three zare six. Two four zare eight. The rhythmic chanting of tables like some mystical invocation that no one could understand sounded here everyday, for this was a class of eight year olds. None of the other smells could be conjured away but he had atleast ensured that the Ayahs had aired the Chatais out in the sun and placed a few plastic chairs in the corner for the Americans to use.

They had also suddenly received an approval for the the entire building, with its ten classrooms and three smelly toilets to be painted. Since the approval had come late, no one had had the time to look into colours or shades or design schemes. The painting was happening in a flurry now, instructions being piled one over the other quickly, spaces filling up with the dregs of colours. Masterji remembered the old days when colours used to be a reflection of something. All police stations used to be painted red. Banks vied with one another to cover the urban landscape with their distinctive logos and colour schemes. For a long time now, such practices had been forbidden. The Sarkar believed that they were an unnecessary indulgence, inimical to the moral life that they wanted citizens to lead. For a long time now, the only colours available had been white or a off-yellow that looked dirty even when it was freshly painted and so never got dirtier. Yellow was in any case the symbol of purity, of chastity, of religious fervor. Bands of Gopikas wore yellow scarves covering their heads as a sign of modesty and their devotion to Krishna.

But there were no Gopikas here. It was entirely a boys school. A boys school with about three hundred boys from the surrounding villages, all dressed in their spotless white shirts and Khaki shorts. They did not cover their heads but simply wore a yellow ribbon tied around their heads and knotted on one side. Those who did well at the archery and singing sessions and pointed out erring neighbours would often be promoted to the Bhaktas Brigade which was assigned the job of going through students’ bags for any suspicious material, reporting on offenders and sometimes handing out punishments for trivial offenses. The Headmaster did not directly control any of these. Infact he did not carry out any of them, though he knew that he could be reported by anyone, if he obstructed these being carried out. They were tightly controlled by the Bharatiya Sabhyata Samitis (B.S.S) which operated in every Taluk and were in turn controlled by the District and State Level avatars of the same.

Ten years ago, one of the boys had been found carrying one of those pictures from the earlier days. He remembered the newspaper. It used to be called the Mid-day, and everyday the page 3 would carry a picture of a scantily dressed well endowed woman. Readers would pretend to be poring over the news intently when all they could actually see would be the model’s luscious curves. Young boys would turn away in embarassment, their eyes held a minute, and then another, by the vicarious promise of flesh on offer, so close, so touchy-feely. Somehow this boy had caught hold of one of these pictures. The white paper had been carefully scraped off from the cardboard that formed the cover of the notebook and here this picture had been hidden. The white paper had been repaced and glued forming a sort of bag through which the overwhelming sexuality of the mid-day mate threatened to burst through. One of the newly promoted Bhaktas, in a hurry to prove his worth, had discovered the trophy and zealously reported it to the B.S.S. The boy had been let off with twenty canings since it was his first offense. The Headmaster had tried to intervene citing that he was only a small boy and he had no father which explained the limited development of morality since a woman could not be trusted alone anyways with the development of a child’s character. The B.S.S local chief was a paunchy man with elephant like ears. His sage elephant ears gave him the appearance of being a patient man who could listen to every argument made to him knowing well that he had already decided on the right course of action.

He welcomed the Headmaster politely enquiring after his welfare. “Jai Shri Ram, Mishraji, Kaise hain? I didn’t see you at our last week’s Bhajan Mandali, I think?”. The Headmaster muttered something about being laid up with fever. He was not a man conversant with the niceties of small talk. He plunged into the case of the boy under the Mid-day Mate case and haltingly tried to explain why the boy deserved to be let off. In the end, for all his troubles, the boy didn’t receive one caning less. What was more, he reformed his ways and did well enough to be promoted to the Bhaktas Brigade the next year. The headmaster on the other hand stayed where he was, same place, same job, same life.

Once in a while, they let him have some entertainment, visiting the whores registered at the next village, their presence hidden from the wives and mothers. The two were distinct entities, everything common to them obliterated. The wives and mothers were carefully desexed, all evidence of breasts and thighs pushed under voluminous garments. The whores were the only ones allowed to parade themselves, infact, they were encouraged to be shameless, if only at night. That way, there was less danger of them wanting to become wives and mothers, less risk of accidental contamination.

Now there was a big event about to happen. Foreigners were coming. Firangis. Maybe there would even be a woman among them. One of those gora women with their clothes like men. Women here now dressed as women should, no ankle, no leg showing, no revealing the line that runs from crotch to toe, no arousing indecent emotions in helpless men. That was all as it should be and he had to admit that the Sarkar had brought about any number of good things. Still. Masterji sat down in the shade to watch the painting completed, and dreamt of the foreigners to come.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A thing of beauty

This week, I managed to visit an exhibition on “Ukiyo-e”, a form of woodblock printing that flourished in Japan from the 17th to 19th centuries. The exhibition was organized by the ABK-AOTS Dosokai, an organization involved in cultural exchanges between India and Japan. Now my close friends will know that I have something of a Japan fetish, and ukiyo-e is definitely part of that. So pronto I hauled myself to the exhibition, never mind the pouring rain and fast disappearing roads.

To introduce the subject, Ukiyo-e is a form of woodblock printing – a complex process involving a team effort by an artist, a carver, a printer and a publisher. (Though there were some artists who dispensed with this quartet and got involved in every part of the process themselves). John Fiorillo who maintains this site has a really good write-up on how ukiyo-e prints were made. A long and intricate process indeed, that involved preparing the wood so that the surface was just right for the task, making an initial drawing, cutting away toe surrounding wood to leave the drawing in relief, and then applying the color to finish the block. This carefully prepared block would then be used to transfer the imprint to paper. As the complexity of the work increased, you can imagine how many different colored and shaped blocks would have been required.

I had my first glimpse of a ukiyo-e work some years ago, and I don’t know why I was so immediatetely fascinated by it. I don’t even remember which one it was. Since then, though, I have tried to read up as much as I can on these beautiful, often elegant, mostly refined, sometimes erotic, sometimes crudely powerful works of art. Once in a while, when an exhibition like this comes to town, I get to actually see good prints or reproductions of the woodblocks. Someday I suppose I will actually go to Japan and have a look at the woodprints themselves. In the meanwhile, I thought I could share something about ukiyo-e with those of you who read this blog.

Ukiyo-e were primarily a product of a prosperous time in Japan, when there came up an aspiring merchant class in Edo (present-day Tokyo) with money to spend and leisure time to spare. The entertainments that were the order of the day were the Kabuki theatre and the teahouses that catered to this class of men. Anyone who has read The Memoirs of a Geisha will get a flavour of this period, though that is set in a later day and age. Ukiyo-e prints therefore typically deal with the life of this class – two kinds of subjects being very popular, bijin-ga or beautiful women and yakusha-e or kabuki actors. The earliest prints are much simpler and usually show very limited use of colour. The focus is on the fine drawing, usually stylised depiction of women.

Gradually however the number of colours used in the prints increases, they become more and more vibrant, and the women are no longer just idealised beautiful faces, they start taking on moods, expressions, depressions. One of my favorite artists as far as bijin-ga go, is Kiyonaga. Almost every woman in the ukiyo-e is beautiful, even the ones who are not, but Kiyonaga’s women are particularly beautiful. I couldn’t somehow find a good image online, but this picture by another well known artist Utamaro is a fine expression of a bijin-ga, pensive, thoughtful, face all focused, yet not really towards the viewer, seeing, yet unseeing (Image courtesy the Artcyclopedia - www.artcyclopedia.com).

Among the yakusha-e, my absolute favorite is Sharaku. For some reason, this artist worked for a very short period of time, only about a yearor two, but his work is just terrific. His Kabuki artists are stealthy, crafty, cunning, sometimes scary, often terrifying. Sometimes they look less than human, more like demons possessed. I like to think of them as possessing the stage they walked on, hunger and passion in their extravagantly made-up faces. You can see here one of Sharaku's works, courtesy Jim Breen's ukiyo-e gallery.

The last kind of ukiyo-e paintings really came at the later stage in its history, when color printing had become much more advanced. This is when landscapes really came into their own, and artists often painted them as part of a series, such as the Hokusai’s 36 views of Mt. Fuji or Hiroshige’s 53 stages on the Tokaido Highway. This is a series of paintings, which I love just for the use of the color blue. Who knew the single word had so many meanings and hues to explore and love? See what I mean, this fine picture courtesy this site, www.hiroshige.org.uk

Another landscape series by Hiroshige is the 100 views of Edo depicting all kinds of scenes from interiors and animals to bridges and roads and people walking along. Some pictures below, courtesy the ukiyo-e gallery. For some reason I am unable to upload any pictures here, but if you've come this far, and you are still interested, you can have a look here and here for some beauties.

Ukiyo-e has now for some years been something I love, and I wanted to share something of that, although I am not an authority on the subject. Far from it infact. I have so much to learn, as is the case with most things in life. Occasionally however, the subject makes it all worthwhile!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Citizen Girl...

...Sucks! And sucks how...Bigtime! If you thought the Nanny Diaries were a great read (and I did) and therefore one could expect something smart and funny from the same authors, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, sadly, you will realise that you are mistake before you get through even ten pages of this book.

The book is a disaster, and thats a kind word. I mean, how did they ever let it get published? There isn't really a plot, so to speak of, if you don't count hysterical yelling and constant irritating self analysis as a plot, that is. The characters are boring, with the lead character, an extremely self righteous young woman who is a jholawala-let-loose-in the-corporate-world stereotype being the boring-est of them all. Add in a newly acquired boyfriend who seems to be suffering from borderline intelligence (apart from his job where he designs games) and bosses who are either control freak or Do your own thing but you get all the flak type, and you can understand how the entire novel is more or less a stereotype thing. Yeah, obviously, thats not a good thing, I mean, not a whole book full of them. (The stereotypes, I mean).

Before I forget, there is also a mom who sounds like Dharma or her mom. (Remember Dharma and Greg?) You know, the non-conformist, hippie, bead-loving stereotype. Yup, they have them all, don't worry.

Nett nett, stay away unless someone is begging to pass it on to you free. (And even then, think twice!)

Two Lives

With Two Lives, Vikram Seth takes on yet another genre of writing, this time, the biography. It does look as if the man is not going to leave any genre undone, with poetry, novel, novel-in-verse, travelogue and now biography all his repertoire.

While the book traces the lives of his grand-uncle Shanti and grand-aunt Henny, he doesn’t really start the book with an account of them. Rather, the beginning is with himself – the stage of his life when he goes to England and lands at their doorstep, the start of a life-long relationship, built on deep affection. It is probably good that Seth decided to begin with this part, because when I started reading part two, my heart sank. He delves into the history of the Seth family starting from two generations before Shanti a little too enthusiastically. While they do provide some context as to the early days and influences of Shanti’s life, I didn’t find it really interesting to learn how many of the family members underwent operations for piles. Beyond the extra-detailing though, the account of Shanti’s childhood and his relationship with various family members is readable enough.

Where the book really picks up steam though is once Shanti goes to Germany. Here onwards, I couldn’t wait to find out what happens to him, and to Henny whom he meets there, as his landlady’s daughter. I liked the way he traces the evolution of their relationship from friendship to solidarity and then love and marriage. The story is more interesting for the times it moves through, the terror of Nazi Germany and the world war which casts such a huge shadow over their lives. What is especially interesting is that the material for the book was all collected post Aunt Henny’s death. Nor had she ever really discussed the devastation caused by the war on her Jewish family, with Shanti, the subject probably being unbearably painful. With very little direct material on what Henny and her family went through, and her feelings over her terrible loss, Seth draws out a vivid picture of Henny from other sources – letters written to and received from old friends after the war, accounts of Auschwitz, snippets of history that recreate the atmosphere of the times.

His own deep affection for them shines through the book, though that doesn’t prevent him from casting light on less than complimentary aspects. Shanti is always Shanti Uncle in true Indian style, while Henny is the more formal Aunt Henny, a little wary of the large Indian family, but in the end, true to the bonds she builds with a few of them, as to her other friends. These bonds don’t prevent him from chronicling his own reservations about certain actions of Uncle Shanti’s or analysing those misgivings candidly. I guess that’s what makes it a good biography, not a hagiography!

As he says at the end, “These two people whom I loved and who loved me, may not, in differing degrees, have wanted every stroke – sometimes distorted, sometimes overexplicit – of this portrait. But they are dead and past caring; and I want them completely remembered – in sickness as in health, in weakness as in strength, in secrecy as in openness. Their lives were cardinal points for me, and guide me still; I want to mark them true.”

Friday, November 04, 2005

Quick! Your writing caps on!

Or how fast can you churn out a novel....

Not necessarily booker material or even fairly readable stuff, but just the ability to sit down at your desk, day after day, for this whole month and churn out a novel by the end of it. Thats what the NaNoWriMo is about, as I hear on Sepia Mutiny.

If you haven't signed on yet, you're already four days late; And me? Naah! Too much work I decided. I shall stick to incomplete short stories that will have my readers breaking their heads. Far more satisfying any day.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Money matters

I am not a spendthrift. I don't go stingy on the things that I really need, but I do think twice before shelling out for another set of clothes I don't need or a pair of shoes that I won't wear too often. So, like I said, I am not a spendthrift and I like to think of myself as a prudent, cautious little bird, putting away a stash in that little nest of mine. Part of this is perhaps a hangover from my childhood when money was in general more scarce than it is now. I remember, my mother always bought us new clothes for diwali or navratri, but when we went shopping, it was with a very clear budget in mind. And you couldn't play around with budgets like bollywood heroines changing costumes for a song, now Indian, now Western, now god-knows-what country-they-got-that-from. No sir, you made your budgets and you stuck to them. That's the way it was. And this is not a few decades ago - I am talking about, say fifteen years ago. Middle class Indians still prided themselves on truly owning everything they had, meaning bought with my own-money and not a loan from someone.
Today though, I got a bit of a shock to this wise-little-birdie image of mine when I dropped in at my library to return some books. These were due about a month ago. While I had realised that I was a little late, I hadn't quite got it that I was so so so late. Besides, there is always some excuse for delay. The rains. My cold. The traffic. The holidays in between. Thats how it went, and the books stayed home a full month after they were due, including one on general chemistry which I didn't even open, and the last Katha prize short stories that I couldn't bring myself to finish, despite all good intentions.
I walked in to the counter and returned the books, fully expecting to be fined, but when I saw my bill. Well, two hundred and twenty five may not seem like that big a deal. Actually it didn't. I dug out three new hundred rupee notes freshly withdrawn from the ATM, got back my change, and scooted over to Gangotri next door to have some pani puri.
That's when it hit me. I had shelled out one hundred and eighty rupees for nothing. Forty five for reading charges, and one eighty five for - just holding the books at night and going to sleep? And why hadn't I even felt anything about it? It wasn't the money itself - probably we all shell out more than that for the occasional lunch. But somewhere, I felt as though by my carelessness, I had devalued money. And in doing that, devaluing the hard work that goes into earning it. When I was young, I used to hear adults saying this often of demanding kids, oh, he will learn when its his own money. I am not so sure if I have really learnt that lesson well. On the one hand, I would like money itself to be relatively unimportant. I would like to pay far more attention to other things that matter - family, affection, friendships, interests. On the other hand, I would still like to treat money with the respect that it deserves - after all, its not just metal and paper - its the symbol of something else, the work that has gone into making it.
On a lighter note, I managed to find a copy of Vikram Seth's Two lives. Usually most of the new arrivals are snapped up immediately, but somehow there was one copy left. Guess I got lucky this time.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Renuka has a visitor

Renuka feels better in the evening, after she has had a nap. She tries to make Lavu feel better by taking the child to the park nearby.

The park has scanty grass which looks more like weed, a few rusty bars and an old slide with its edges dangerously broken. Lavu finds another six year old girl to play with, and they sit on the ground, raking in the dirt with their fingers, grubbing for enough mud to pile up with stones and build a house. Renuka takes a walk with the girl’s mother, her eyes shifting back to the children in the corner, where she can hardly hear them any more, only see them, specks in the corner, Lavu’s plum colored frock against the other girl’s white, hunched so close together. She only hopes the other girl doesn’t have lice in her hair, surely they will get transferred, children catch these things so quickly. Renuka wants Lavu to be atleast as happy and healthy as she was when she got here, if not made into an improved version.

The girl’s mother is a woman she has seen often at the supermarket nearby, though this is the first time she is meeting her. The women at the park are an exclusive club, the club of mothers with young children, who walk in everyday at five o’clock to watch over their children playing. Renuka doesn’t belong to this club. She has no children who need watching over, no children of any kind at all. Lavu has brought her today a kind of temporary membership into this coterie, where she will walk and make new friends, pretend that she has a child who refuses to eat, a child who needs money again for a new uniform, a child who wants to listen to stories all day long, a child who will accept only barbie, not just any doll. Today, and for the next month that Lavu is here, she will be here at five everyday, watching over Lavu and the other children
When the month is over, she will return to her former self, a woman who doesn't have a club to go. She isn't unhappy that way though. She's fine.