Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Reading Roald Dahl

You were just a four year old. Tiny, almost too small for your age. At night you slept dreaming of Hanuman and Durga. And Mahishasura. By day you killed Ravana and Raktabeeja with your pencil strokes, a million times. And in between you heard stories of Roald Dahl read by whoever gave into your relentless persuasion.

First there was Charlie and Mr. Willy Wonka and the amazing chocolate factory with the eccentric grandparents and the hapless parents accompanied by your enthusiastic approval of all that followed. Then came Matilda, the child prodigy with her exceptional reading skills, something you are in awe of even today after all these years. The horrid Miss Trunchbull and the voice that read her part still echoes in your mind when you hear her name, making your blood boil.

The Witches profoundly affected your life. You went searching for them armed with the telltale signs described by the grandmother. For you were heart broken at the end when the boy gets transformed into a mouse. In James and the Giant Peach you met your doppelganger albeit with horrible aunts. Yours were charming, loving and everything you wanted aunts to be like. But you wouldn’t have minded to swap places with James for a bit of a surreal adventure with insects. You could never brush off a spider ever again without thinking about it’s young ones.

Fantastic Mr. Fox you simply loved. If you hadn’t been living in Delhi’s concrete jungle you would have definitely laid out a feast for hungry foxes ever night. Instead you fed the stray dogs bread and rotis. But most of all like Sophie you needed to find The BFG. For being friends with a friendly giant would have made the long, dark nights so much more exciting.

One day inevitably you had heard all the stories ever written by Roald Dahl and you hadn’t even turned five yet. Ah the life long regrets it would give rise to.

Eight years later you bemoan the end of childhood wishing you had never grown up. Wondering if life would ever be so delightful. I laugh at your words, echoing the usual platitudes but lacking the courage to reveal the bittersweet truth.

(Afterthought on books: part 7)

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Joan Eardley

(View some more of her work at National Galleries of Scotland)
If you want experience and understanding of beauty envy me now but if you want happiness then don’t envy me because these things don’t bring happiness - Joan Eardley (1921-1963)

Who was Joan Eardley? Even the introduction to the book accompanying the exhibition Joan Eardley held at the National Gallery Complex, Edinburgh, begins with these words. A woman, a painter born in England living in Scotland, a social realist, Scotland’s answer to the Cobra artists or Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Where does she stand? As part of the London Kitchen Sink School or as an exponent of pure abstraction. Ah well! Let others well versed in the nuances of painting pare though this bewildering heap of categorization. For us it’s just another Sunday afternoon at the Tate Modern Bookshop. So lets simply indulge in the pure joy of her art.

Lets start with the children. Immensely engaging portraits of children residing in the poorest tenements of post Second World War Glasgow. Like sublime photographs discovered among old family papers. Look at their eyes, their expressions, their fragile beauty as they lean against graffiti scrawled walls and windows of derelict apartments. Look these are two friends. Look at this one’s right arm around the other’s shoulder, look at the other one holding her fingers, look at their smiling eyes. Look here are three children leaning out of the window with the two little ones covering their mouth with their hands. Here are Pat and Anne Samson with astonishingly distinct personalities for one so young vividly portrayed with chalk on paper. This little girl with a squint sucking her fingers lost in deep thought. What is she thinking? These children at play in the back street and these standing in queue for the Saturday Matinee. And look here is Andrew reading a comic. How did his life turn out? With a few brush strokes the life and times of an entire generation gets captured and reproduced here in these 96 pages.

Of course there is more. The shores of Catterline with the raging waves and the sky barely hanging in and one can almost feel the wind sculpt and transform the entire scene. Fields with birds, fields with daisies, fields at harvest time and something almost always giving away the presence of the wind. And the Sleeping Nude, which “was subjected to ‘shock horror’ headlines in tabloid press. One newspaper published her address, whereupon various men turned up volunteering to pose for her. Eardley never again painted a male nude.” The city councilors too weren’t keen on her depiction of the tenements in a rapidly modernizing Glasgow. In the last year of her life Eardley began painting flower studies.

There are also photographs by Eardley and others documenting life in Glasgow. And of Eardley herself. As a young girl, with her sister and a piglet, in Italy, at Catterline, on her motor scooter, in her studio. Joan Eardley who died aged just forty-two with the contents of her house at Catterline valued “…just 25 pounds, the paintings in the studio were valued at 1000 pounds...total sum of her estate was 19,881 pounds.”

There is enough in these pages about how she lived, painted and died to answer the original question. But as you turn the last page you know her art is answer enough, but now other questions all starting with ‘why’ suddenly appear to be more pertinent.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


Marcovaldo or The seasons in the city by Italo Calvino

In a sprawling metropolis where the temperature within and without is always a constant some pleasant degree centigrade where do the seasons go? Caught up in the 9 to 5 or whatever the present state of existence is categorized as, is the change in seasons only visible in the mall windows advertising the “this season” or the “end of whatever’ sale?

What happened to the Marcovaldo in us? One who as Calvino writes, “…would never miss a leaf yellowing on a branch, a feather trapped by a roof -tile; there was… no worm-hole in a plank, or a fig-leaf squashed on the sidewalk that Marcovaldo didn’t remark and ponder over, discovering the changes of season, the yearnings of the heart, and the woes of his existence.”

When did we become an overwhelmingly city dwelling species so detached from nature that even a speck of mud on our clean shiny shoes makes us recoil in disgust. Nature; every living being encompassed in that one word, the one thing that makes this pale blue dot unique in the entire galaxy. How did man become so disconnected from life?

Or do the Marcovaldos belong to another world? Stuck here where “The night lasted for twenty seconds, then came twenty seconds of GNAC. For twenty seconds you could see the blue sky…the gilded sickle of the waxing moon…and the stars…to the sprinkle of Milky Way…in great haste…because twenty seconds quickly ended…GNAC took over...part of the neon sign SPAAK COGNAC.” Always looking for that lost something only to realize they are the ones on the verge of losing it all.

The Marcovaldo of the book exists during the early 50’s and mid 60’s Italy when a very poor nation starts gaining illusions of economic prosperity. Time to conserve the remaining Marcovaldos before they become an extinct species in a world peddling delusions of wealth and well being.

(Afterthoughts on books: part 6)

Monday, 20 April 2009

Walking in Delhi

(To learn more about walking in Indian cities click here)

To ask someone to walk in Delhi sounds preposterous and is often dismissed with a laugh. That was the reaction we got from our friend when we walked for the last time in Delhi. It was 2004. The event wasn’t so momentous that we’d record the date but it so happened that we left Delhi after a few months. So the stroll from Saket to Aurobindo Place Market on a winter afternoon is the last time we walked purely for the pleasure of walking in Delhi. The soft afternoon sun, the smell of roasting peanuts, small thelas piled with cheap woolens, even the languidly moving traffic seemed to add to the pleasure probably because we could navigate it so easily and quickly. We would have loved to say that the skeptic friend became a convert but in reality he too remembers the walk for precisely the same reasons as us.

Another memorable walk was some 10 years earlier when the IIT U special didn’t turn up and the three of us, all girls, decided to walk to Pragati Maidan from Pandara Road to catch the Noida special. That too was winter and Delhi looked so beautiful in the liquid sunlight that we ended up walking all the way to Miranda House for we were only nineteen and Sociological theory wasn’t something we looked forward to first thing in the morning. And what a wonderful walk it was. There were a few strange looks but for the most part we completed our journey unmolested, which is commendable considering one can’t walk a few steps without fending off unnecessary comments and unwarranted glances these days. The fact that we had clearly demarcated space to walk for the most part too helped. We tried to recreate the journey in the opposite direction but it was monsoon and that year safety of women was a major news item. So we caught the bus back home from ITO.

Having lived for over 12 years in Delhi we walked in all kinds of weather for all kinds of reasons. Along ruins, in gardens among chrysanthemums and roses, under Peepul trees with their leaves turning pink, up and down the Delhi University campus eating bhelpuri, on Prithviraj Road with bats for company, in Sanjay Van with the twisted Vilayati Keekar creating a mini Mordor, along roads densely packed with cars honking and the auto rickshaw we had abandoned getting swallowed by the smoke, on Kamraj Marg when the Amaltas colours the sidewalk gold, in Tughlaqabad with the moneys watching us even as we watched them, in JNU under the trees singing in the rain, to Khan Market to Aurobindo Place. A million walks in a city that seemed to be best explored on foot to enjoy its timeless beauty. But that was before Delhi became the city of a million roads and nowhere to go.

The only regret. Never being able to enjoy a walk along the Yamuna to truly appreciate the city that was built beside a river.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev (1966) Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

It has to have a beginning. In our case it was Andrei Rublev. There were before that stray snatches, a scene, a visual recollected from the late night show on Doordarshan long before there were 357 channels and nothing on. Later we’d wonder where does one go to watch these films. For we were too preoccupied with the obvious to realize that in far off reaches of India, in small towns of Kerela there exist Andrei Tarkovsky appreciation societies and such like. Till an honorable member of one such introduced us to Andrei Rublev.

The moment the rope is cut and the man shouts, “I’m flying, I’m flying” gliding over the beautiful Russian landscape with the horses running wild till the inevitable thud and the horse rolling in the grass rising to trot off and reveal the broken man and his tattered balloon something in our lives changed. We were drawn into the world of Andrei Rublev with his vow of silence, painter of breathtaking icons in an era devoid of spirituality. The jester dances banging his drum, pagans carry torches in the mist, the birch trees in the forest crawl with life and the river yields a decomposed swan, the cavalry marches through the snow, the snow falls through the roof of the ransacked church, the mad woman chooses to go with the Tartars, and finally in an inspired moment overcoming the fear of death and lack of knowledge the young man casts the perfect bell and as the bell tolls Andrei Rublev regains his passion. While we watched the horses standing in the rain at the end unnoticed by us something inside us too got reborn.

Andrei Rublev became the moment when we began to ‘see’. We developed a cinematic conscience just like a child records what would go onto become her first childhood memory. And life has become so much more enriching ever since.

(On cinema part 1)

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The brief wondorous life of Oscar Wao

The brief wondorous life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

How many people would know what is the capital of Dominican Republic? Or its neighbouring country? In just a few years one forgets everything that was learnt over long, sleepless nights.

How intrinsically is an individual’s life history connected to the history of his country, his people? In a highly globalized world can there ever be a global citizen? At what point in time does one stop being an immigrant, an outsider?

Or as Yunior, the part narrator says, "You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest."

Think of a third world country. Any third world country or especially one that you can’t recall the capital city of or locate on the world map and chances are that it has a very violent history and not surprisingly the first world has played a not too insignificant role in it’s past and present misery.

Or as Junot Diaz puts it so eloquently, “They say it came first from Africa," the novel begins, "carried in the screams of the enslaved … that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku – generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World…No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world, and we’ve been in shit ever since.”

Time to open that atlas now.

(Afterthought on books: part 5)

Sunday, 12 April 2009

On Blogging

“I write fiction. Every incident that I have ever put down on paper is imagined. Also I am a compulsive liar. So now ask what it is that you wanted to know,” she says with a beguiling smile while moving her bejeweled finger as if conjuring up this entire rendezvous out of thin air.

“If only my life was as interesting as my words. If only the people I knew as enigmatic. If only…Ah! It is these ifs that probably made me a writer,” she continues as a tiny ting echoes when she picks up the cup. She must be at least eighty a faint voice seems to whisper.

A few hours and many such exchanges later she says, “One would think writing is as easy as snapping one’s fingers. Look at all of us. Are we all writers or what? Margaret Atwood, in a NY Times interview says of the flood of new writers ‘It’s like everyone’s blogging about how they brushed their teeth this morning.’ Though Margaret, the realist that she is, does say, ‘The myth that everyone once read great literature is just a myth.’ That probably explains 147 followers for someone who confidently misinterprets simple cinematic plots and if challenged hides behind the, ‘it’s my blog.’ defense line. How lovely.”

“Friends honour each other with awards and collectively feel creative and accomplished just like that. And to think it took Gabriel Garcia Marquez seventeen years to write The Autumn of the Patriarch. Mediocrity applauding mediocrity. Must be very comforting.”

“Oh yes! I would love to blog.”

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Languid Afternoons

It is one of those languid afternoons. The Delhi winter ones. The two rods of the electric heater glow orange and then red in one corner and we all along with our books and huge mugs of tea and tiny plates piled with chocolate Bourbon biscuits are scattered around the room discussing language. Not a leisurely meditation upon tricky linguistics ala Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry but the more mundane one on semiotics and semantics and the inevitable death of the old unwieldy ones. You know the kind when minds are full of books and theories and postulates. When everyone tries to sound much more solemn and profound than they really are. And everyone is so earnest.

And then it happens. A sentence or maybe a word casually placed among a group of words and we are suddenly reciting “Khub ladi mardani woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi” and before we know it someone starts singing a Dev Anand song. Yes the same one about the forlorn moon and sleepless nights. And the kettle is empty.

No one can quite tell exactly when twilight obliterated the hazy afternoon. But when the singing stops the sounds of the crickets seem to testify to the rueful end. A kind of melancholy descends upon the room. Suddenly the conversation becomes awkward. People start mumbling about dinnertime, tutorials to finish and so one by one leave. And all is quiet except for the crickets.

Almost fifteen years later the possibility of a languid afternoon wiled away in intense discussions and cheerful banter seems almost preposterous. What can we possibly talk about? How superficial we all are. And how utterly banal.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The faint smell of jasmines and oranges

When you finally had the conversation with her she was almost ninety-five years old. But as always inquisitive and eager. There was so much she wanted. To fly in an airplane that she had seen only on a screen. To visit Bombay. To learn to swim. To wear a gigantic diamond ring. To find a pot full of gold coins. But that was mostly said in jest. What she really wanted to do was sit on a cot under a tree and recollect each and every day of her life.

But her memory had its own personal agenda. Sometime it would fixate on what she was wearing when she wanted to in actuality concentrate on remembering what he was saying. Sometimes when she would try to recollect her childhood, her memory would instead stray towards the power games she had played as an adult. Sometimes it would force upon her the visions of ghosts. People whom she did not want to remember. People long gone, who had no impact upon her life except for this occasional haunting that seemed to thrust her own mortality into the forefront, when all she wanted to do was recollect how beautiful she had looked as a young 16 year old bride. The memories kept pushing her in this and that direction. Till she simply had to accept she had no control over her memories.

Then a gentle breeze had risen mixing the smell of jasmines with the smell of oranges that you were peeling for her. She had sighed and looked right into your eyes and said, “Honestly, all that I want is peace.”

When a few months later the phone rang you knew what everyone had been expecting for the past six months had come to pass. And she had at last found what she had wanted the most. Trying to remember the last meeting all you could recollect was the faint smell of jasmines and oranges.