Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Writer's block

Radhika knew that the best stories always happened at night. When she was lying awake in her bed and watching the gloomy street lamp poke fingers of light in through her window. She often considered getting thicker curtains to blot it out. But on the whole it suited her. It was not so easy to make up her stories in the daytime, when sales charts and meetings left her with no time or energy. Night served the purpose better. If she got up to write them down or key them in on the computer, she knew the light would disturb her mother sleeping in the next room. So she would try to memorize every detail as faithfully as she could, and write it down in the morning. But that was still difficult. The plots twisted themselves, the characters behaved in kinky ways, and what remained was a miserable fraction of the night’s effort. Perhaps her dreams had something to do with it.

Once she had dreamt that she was standing near a barren ground where a dark man with a scarf tied over his head was digging a grave. Large vampire bats flew around his head in swirls of psychedelic color. She knew immediately, though the dream did not mention it, that her mother was in danger. She woke up alarmed to find that the next room was empty. It took her a few minutes to realise that her mother had gone down for her morning cup of coffee. In general her dreams were fleshed out in such techni-color reality that it was difficult for the stories to sustain themselves through the night. After all, they were only figments of imagination.

Radhika knew when she was very young that she wanted to be a writer. When she had her first story published in her school magazine, her mother assured her that she was on the way. But sometime after twenty the stories stopped coming except in the occasional furtiveness of night. She had begun writing a story about a girl who lived on the seaside and fell in love with a Norwegian sailor who came to the port. But she realised that although she had lived all her life in a coastal city, she knew little or nothing about the sea. She could not say how high its waves were or what its color was or how small the ships looked when you saw them from the shore. For her, it meant only an annual excursion with her family to the beach. And that was not the end of her problems. Every time she tried to write someone else’s story, she found that the road to her head had been blocked. There was a hard packed column inside refusing to let the stories in or out. It was not an excuse or a product of wishful thinking. There it was in her chest, she could feel it, solid, symmetrical, unmovable. It did not stop her from breathing – air slid in and out of the spaces easily, but the rest was crammed with her own stories. Every cubic centimeter taken by memories, every smooth corner occupied by past events. Hurts imagined and real, misunderstanding folded up into cold politeness, disappointments, conquests, all jostled for space.

Radhika knew that she would have to be ruthless and carve these out with a surgeons knife. She had to reduce the column to zero, produce a hollow space which she could then fill with the stories of others. Inhale them greedily, churn them inside and spit them out with newly acquired panache. But the first incision was not going to be easy. . As the cliché went, writing was no child’s play, and a difficult game even when you were grown-up!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Culture label

There has always been too little real respect for freedom in India, I feel. While that may sound like a too-broad generalisation, it isn’t. Its something I’ve observed at too many levels – at home, at work, in the daily interaction with so many different people. As a society, we seem to value order and familiarity more, which we then label under the comforting title 'culture'. Then we hold on to it with both hands, even if that means choking the life out of individual spaces and desires. .

When I was in college and staying at a paying guest house, there was a young girl who came to stay, one evening. Another student, but somehow she seemed younger, more naïve. Not yet eighteen, and married already, with a fake birth certificate produced triumphantly to get the registrar to agree. Straight out of a bollywood pot-boiler, she was actually on the run from her family, having dared to commit that crime, marry someone from another religion. Three months down the line, when I had moved away, I heard that she had killed herself unable to bear the pressure anymore. An overdose of pills, death down your gullet so smoothly. This girl came across as someone exceptionally child-like, and with little maturity to carry off a long-term relationship. Still, I could only wonder, what kind of parents did she have, who thought it was okay to lock her up in her room and beat her, which was what had made her run away in the first place.

There seems to be something wrong with a culture which places so little emphasis on the rights of young people, simply because of a veneration for age. In these days ofcourse, even saying something like this is dicey – immediately, one will be branded that lowest of all things criminal – a destroyer of Indian or Tamizh or whatever culture the protestors feel like safeguarding at the moment. But I don’t believe that belonging to any nationality or state places any obligation on me to defend its excesses. Surely the first sign of rationality or enlightenment is the ability to question. But that is not something we encourage.

In school, while planning for an excursion, a new student dared to ask our class teacher how the money being collected for the trip was being allocated. The student was simply pulled up for his impertinence, possibly to cover up deficiencies in the way the money was really being spent. The attitude was, we are teachers and we know what’s right, you will be told stuff strictly on a need-to-know basis, and again, we decide what you need to know. (Substitute teachers with parents or elders or government servants or people with more money or any such thing which confers status and power and you have more or less the same scenario). We start out at school, from our earliest days, being asked to just obey, be good children, not talk too much, learn by-heart. Very soon, if there are people still asking questions, its inspite of the system, not because of it. Not only does this system encourage us to obey, it teaches us to feel guilty even if we think of disobeying.

I am writing this, simply because all these so-called defenders of morality rising up suddenly, gives me the shivers. I am scared to be living in a country where people still hold unquestioningly that a woman’s chastity is her greatest virtue. I am petrified of living in a country where some people still think that a girl and a boy need to be ‘permitted’ to sit in a park peacefully. We are not questioning it enough, the credentials and motives of these self-styled defenders of the faith. Or atleast, there are not enough questions coming up from the people who matter. If the Tamizh industry at large had spoken up in defence of Khushboo, I doubt there would have been sufficient time and energy to build and burn effigies of each and every actor. Atleast this incident in Meerut got politicians of all hues, including Sushma Swaraj talking.

I think its time we started looking inwards and admit that just because we are Indian, our culture is not necessarily ideal in every aspect. We need to be open to change, and not view ourselves as keepers of some kind of sacred fire that will go out if we don’t keep fanning it every minute. Culture is dynamic and going to move in many different ways, irrespective of whether certain individuals see it that way. Saare jahan se accha and all that is fine, but lets not go overboard and take it too literally!

The short life of a fish

Last night I dreamt that I had morphed into a fish. I swam around a rectangular tank, my sleek propeller body cutting through the water. Point A to B and Point C to D and Point A to B. What is life, if not this endless repetition of hours, days and years? I asked myself rhetorical questions to which there was no answer, and spent my time pondering over the nature of God and the wisdom of his or her existence. I deigned to accept my fate, I rebelled against the laws of nature, I tossed about frantically between these two extremes. I worshipped Darwin, I claimed the Hand of God. And while I was doing all of this, a big hand entered the water and pulled me up, gasping, rasping. I woke up on the kitchen tale, just before the knife sliced me in two.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Free to dream

In a land very far away there lived a princess with a zycronite tiara and a sword of steel. This is not set in the time of so long ago, but in the here and now. Naturally the princess was elected to rule by popular mandate, once that thing called democracy had been brought in by a race of people called Americans. Now the Americans were not themselves the most popular people on the planet they called Earth. Still, they liked themselves better than most other people did. And that is an achievement not everyone can claim. Like I was saying, the Americans came and rigged up the democracy bits and pieces and taught everyone how to use their index finger and punch in a name on a machine. That’s all there really was to it, it seemed. And while they did that, they helped the Princess print some posters of herself with her thirty-two smiling teeth all nice and shiny, and her boobs stuck out at the right angle so that she looked appealing and well fed. You can be like me, the posters screamed, everyone will eat, everyone will get their teeth set nicely, no more cavities, no more rottenness. By then no one in the city believed anything. Still. She looked nice enough in her zycronite tiara and her sword of steel. So a few of them voted her in. It was a change from looking at pictures of fat men in beards and stiff suits who just fed people to alligators. She did have a few of those skeletons in her closet too, but hey, like the Americans say, you can’t have everything. Not in the foreseeable future. Till then, what’s to stop you from dreaming.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Murakami, an explorer of imagination...errr...what?

"Murakami is explorer of imagination", Rather unimaginative title, that one. Still, the Harvard University Gazette has a decently-readable account of Murakami's recent talk at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. Jay Rubin, who has translated much of Murakami's work into English, says something about his work, which more or less sums up my fascination with the man : "the way he deals with the big questions of life without really answering them." Some talent, that requires definitely.
The article also has some encouraging words for upcoming writers. Write more, and more, he says : The worst thing a writer can do is decide that he or she is going to write one great story. Writing is like catching a wave, and like a surfer, a writer cannot expect to catch a wave perfectly every time.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


Every morning, I drive myself to work half asleep. I am perched on my scooter, like a little bird on the edge of a branch, wings aflutter, half waiting to fly away somewhere. This hard and lumpy body of mine, fifty odd kilos of flesh and inertia, is here, here, here, but me, I am elsewhere, moving someplace else, every place else but where I am supposed to be going. I am an instinctively cautious driver, my body attunes itself to the road even as I shut out the noise, the insane honking, the indescribable sound of a world that has forgotten how silence used to feel. In that other secret world, there is a quiet place where the sounds of silence are cherished. In that other secret world, the heart is still. The constant hankering for something, the craving for everything needed and un-needed, that unstill feeling is dead. The other secret world moves in, to a fleeting intersection of this one. I twist the accelerator with my fingers, cold flesh on warm metal and zoom on through the intersection zone. The crunch of metal, the splash of broken glass, a squirt of blood, I fall through to reality.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sanjay Ghosh has been kidnapped

It was the final year of my graduation. We were due to leave college in another three months. Naïve and enthusiastic, we had entered the mouth of the machine three years ago. Well-oiled, it moved on soundlessly all this while, and in the end spewed us out. We had been fed with all kinds of scrap from and puked it out with unfailing regularity. The whole place was one giant cesspool. And yet, now that we had to leave, we were unhappy.

Well, not unhappy, exactly. Just apprehensive at the thought that a still more gigantic machine was lying in wait for us, jaws open. Ofcourse, machines by themselves are fairly benevolent in nature. You pop in, go through the all the motions of whatever there is to go through. And out you go, a well-turned out product of the ultimate finishing school. One machine to another, the assembly line moves effortlessly. School, college, work, marriage, children, obligation, custom, service…At that time, I did not consciously think of all this. Perhaps I was still young enough to think that I could escape. Or maybe I did not even know what I wanted to escape. All I felt was a vague kind of dissatisfaction, and occasionally a twinge that this is not what I wanted to do.

And yet, what did I really want to do? I wanted to be brave and penniless. I wanted to spend my life writing. No interruptions, no full stops. I wanted to help people. It was the ultimate fantasy - self sacrifice, heroism. Ah, she never married, you know. Too devoted to her work. We need more people like her for this country.

Then one day, in December, we saw a poster on our bulletin board. Recently, ULFA militants had kidnaped Sanjay Ghosh, a leading activist of an NGO working in Assam. Though his work had been apolitical in nature, and essentially involved organising people for better soil and water management, for some strange reason, he had been abducted. It was now three months since the kidnapping, and there had been no demands, no news. People feared that the militants had taken him, merely to 'set an example.' Now his colleagues were mobilising public opinion to force the Central Government to take some decisive action. And there was a meeting to be held in our auditorium that afternoon.

I arrived a little late, to find that hardly any seats had been occupied. A shorthaired spectacled woman was speaking earnestly. I learnt that she was Jennifer Liang, one of Sanjay Ghosh's closest friends. Along with her, was her brother Lawrence. I knew Lawrence very slightly. He was the star speaker of the National Law school, and trounced opponents routinely at all debates. His presence here impressed me. So did Jennifer's sincere speech about their work in Assam and Sanjay's kidnapping. Student activism of any kind being virtually unknown on our campus, this was our first exposure to any kind of heroism. And were we impressed! Stories read long ago, Nam and anti-war activists, hippies and protest marches, floated through my mind.

After a peaceful talk, we dispersed to meet at a silent protest meeting that evening. There were students from all over the city, artists and writers, folk dance troupes…It was as far removed from our daily college routine as possible. We vowed to fight to the finish, to get the government to make some move. Pamphlets screamed, Where is Sanjay Ghosh? We lighted lamps and pledged that we would not rest until the truth was known.
Looking back, I cringe in embarrassment. How could we ever have thought that we would make any difference? Not in the sense of making a slumbering government take any notice of our feeble protests. But even within ourselves. What kind of strength did we think we had?

Every day brought with it all its accompanying rituals – eat, sleep, go to college, go to bed. Exams, birthdays, parties. Scraped knees, colds and aches, snot, blood, germs. French classes, music tuitions, newspapers, television. All these are the powerful weapons that life employs. Somewhere on life’s surface, a fissure begins, and the lucky few who slip, evade the blunt edge of these. The rest of us are in equilibrium, and we walk on a smooth plain, running on the same spot forever.

Meetings, protests, the travails of other people…they are powerful too. That day, they made a small dent in our lives. Yet, soon enough, we covered those dents and continued walking. The letters that we were all supposed to post on behalf of Sanjay, to various authorities, remained on my table for a long time. Finally, in April, I picked up the guts to throw them away. After that, I was able to evade all letters from the Sanjay Ghosh foundation without any difficulty. It was my life, after all.

For a few months, Sanjay remained a juicy morsel for the media, getting downgraded from front page to page three to page seven single column. What happened to him, we never came to know. But his kidnapping put me face to face with myself. And it was too late to wish that I had never looked.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Until I find You

I found a John Irving I couldn’t finish. Infact I could hardly bear to read it. John Irving is one of those authors I had a somewhat excessive fondness for, as a college kid. Looking back, I find it all somewhat embarassing. You know that feeling, when you find an old that-adolescent-age snap of yours, all metal brace and too long arms and legs. Well, that’s the precise feeling I get when I think of how over the moon I used to be over Irving.

Still, one has to admit, The world according to Garp is a bloody good book. Even if you discount everything else, this one part in the book really kills me. When Garp is taking his sons to the sea, he tells them “Watch out for the undertow”. The younger boy, a four year old, mistakes this for the under toad, and imagines a sinister sea monster lurking beneath the waters, waiting for him, raring to pull him under. Irving is smart. He just lets you sit there reading and terrorised, waiting for the under toad that is surely going to bring everything down. And sure enough, it does, as the novel moves on into its tragic finale.

I liked Setting free the bears and The 158 pound marriage as well. Inspite of all of Irving’s outrageous characters and incredible happenings, they had something to say. The 158 pound marriage is a an extremely interesting account of commitment and fidelity, and relationships, through the opposite lens of well-planned and executed infidelity.

But this latest book, Until I find you, leaves me completely cold. Its as though Irving just decided to leave in all the weirdness, the colorfulness, the unusual happenings and people. But behind them, there’s nothing at all. Okay, so there’s a man, Jack Burns. Famous actor with a troubled childhood, though the trouble is not clear in the beginning. Then he goes through a troubled life, with pretty much no close relationships and an ability to sleep with just about everyone. He unravels his troubled life gradually and separates the false memories from the true to get to what really happened to him. He realises almost everything bad that can happen, has happened to him. Fine, fine, fine. But it all just feels like a whiner’s story. Though Burns talks a lot about sympathetic roles in movies and sympathetic characters in novels, this novel is sympathetic to no one. Infact it isn’t sympathetic to its readers too. Its pretty boring.

The only interesting bit is the world of the tattoo artists, their close knit lives, the solidarity, the codes, the tattoo world names. Even Hollywood which is supposed to be Burns’ world appears like some shady backdrop, too hazy really to serve any purpose. On the whole, it’s a pretty sordid tale of what can happen to you if your parents don’t bring you up well. And I have to say, its too long a book to read, just to learn that!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


My feet ache with the strain of wearing these new three inch high heels all day. Strangely enough, they hurt more when I step out of them, as though missing a crucial body part. The agony of a phantom limb, blood red and sexy, severed and gone, Painted toe, strapped heel, waxed leg, coated with body lotion and hard work. Looking beautiful, or even presentable, is no easy job. Self confidence, that’s what we give you, the ads in all the glossies proclaim. A little too confident, airbrushed perfect faces soothing and fanning my insecurity. I am a bundle of nerves, a twistermaze of ligaments and sinew, all imperfections shouting to be seen, while the other me runs to hide them. Quickly, quickly. I am always one step behind, slouching, while this other me runs on merrily, hobnobbing, networking, getting along in the important world. I tell myself that I am pleasing myself only. We are like this only. But a stray hair walks out on my errant eyebrow line, mocking my assertion. I am disappointed with myself, with the image in the mirror that I can never be. The fault line of the cerebellum explodes, skewing apart my carefully put together face.