Thursday, 30 July 2009


July passes away. Just like a candle snuffed July shines no more, it will trouble us no more. And we watch the wispy black smoke dissipate and sigh goodbye July and not a moment too soon. With this July neatly folded and stored in the recesses of our brain all that is left is nostalgia for other Julys that have long gone but not entirely forgotten.

That July of the return to college at the start of a new session. The lukewarm, watery tea and oily samosas like mana from heaven nourishing and enriching conversations and memories forever more. Almost painting a luminous halo all golden and shimmering around them. Or the wonderful July of power cuts and endless meaningless drives late at night in Delhi’s sweltering heat looking at the clouds that pass by promising no respite. Ah! The joy of those late night trysts with orange bars and empty roads. Could there be a July more beautiful! And then there is that enchanting July when bucket full of rain fell and the grass sang at its touch. But the doctor’s warning rang ominously, “Don’t let the child play in the rain. The scars will get infected.” Heedlessly the tiny feet kicked and splashed, the wounds got infected and the doctor livid. Nonetheless that was a July bar none. That brings us to that peerless July, too perfect to be true, among the mountains when we…

So all the Julys come tumbling through memory’s back lane. Each beyond compare. Flawless, with a hint of sparkle, those wonderful nostalgia tinted Julys. Forever nullifying the present and glorifying the past.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Character of Rain

The Character of Rain by Amelie Nothomb

My first clearest childhood memory is from when I was three years old. Though I know most people remember stray instances from an age much earlier than that. In Japan it is believed that children until the age of three are gods, each one an okosama, or “Lord Child” and at the age of three they fall from grace and join the common humankind. If one is born in Japan one too would probably remember the first two years of childhood with such clarity as displayed by Amelie Nothomb’s prose.

Partly autobiographical and completely philosophical Metaphysique des tubes, the original French title is more suited than The Character of Rain, evokes the secret world of a toddler filled with wondrous moments. From the time of ‘cylindrical serenity – filtering everything in the universe, retaining nothing’ to the ‘leap of faith’ to bite into white chocolate and thus develop a conscience to the age of two and half years when, ‘choosing between my parents, who treated me like the others, and my nanny, who treated me like a god, was not a real choice. I would become Japanese’ the child narrates a tale about the beginning of a life that is both fantastical and sublime till the final fall from grace that is both tragic and inevitable.

Twice a year on the eighth and ninth day of Navaratri, the nine nights devoted to the worship of the supreme goddess Shakti/Devi, young girls in India, at least in North India, put on their festive finery adorned with gold embroidery and tiny mirrors and enter the realm of the divine. Nine young (and of course virgin) girls symbolizing the nine avatar of the goddess are worshiped in a ceremony called kanya puja that celebrates the purity and the power of creation that is vested in girls. The older women perform aarti, and offer special treats like halwa-puri-chana and present new clothes and press small coins in their tiny hands all in an effort to appease the goddess.

And then with the onset of puberty these girls suffer a fall from grace and are no longer invited. Girls much younger than them take their place on the pedestal. But their pain is as real as that felt by a child being bought up in Japan even though they were divine only twice each year.

This fall from grace marks every childhood. The transition from the time when the world revolves around your every whim and fancy to the moment when you become answerable for every ‘what are you doing’ and ‘where are you going’ is a common destiny shared by every child. But more tellingly this fall marks more than just the end of the state of infancy. As Amelie Nothomb puts it, “Turning three brought absolutely nothing good with it. The Japanese are right to see it as the end of the divine state. Something is lost, something more precious than anything and yet beyond recapture: belief in the goodness of the world.”

(Afterthoughts on books: part 12)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

A day with Emily

Too happy Time dissolves itself
And leaves no remnant by –
“Tis Anguish not a Feather hath
Or too much weight to fly –

I stole them from a Bee -
Because – Thee –
Sweet plea –
He pardoned me!

To venerate the simple days
Which lead the seasons by,
Needs but to remember
That from you or I,
They may take the trifle
Termed mortality!

(All poems by Emily Dickinson
. All photographs by Anvita Lakhera.)

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A lazy summer evening

I took a walk in the park and this is what I did see.

A bee on a flower buzzing along the well-worn trajectory.

The heron framed by leafy finery, mimicking ancestry.

A bunch of daisies nodding to display inimitable harmony.

A blackbird among green leaves singing a sweet memory.

The grass and the trees exchanging mystical messages
with an invisible emissary.

Eternity summarized here and now just for me.
(All Photograph by Anvita Lakhera.)

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Unbounded Reality

Sweltering in the heat of Delhi you revisit your mountain idyllic. The house set among the mountains and meadows. The smell of burning wood. The old man with blazing eyes, his wife of many years and the friend. The potter’s wheel obeying the perfect synapse between your brain and fingers. The pears nodding shyly among the branches not yet ready to be picked. The fresh grass, the dog, the voice of Tom Lehrer; images flashing through your brain.

While in a flat in suburban Bombay the mouse gets ready to gnaw through the mattress, visible due to the hole he has chewed in the bed sheet, and curses his luck. Human folly and grave miscalculations on his part have distorted his idyllic vision. But now that he is here he will make the best of it.

Meanwhile I read about Jane Austen and the tiny table she sat at to write her masterpieces and marvel at ‘the modesty of genius’. As the blue tits on the balcony outside jostle for pecking space on the overcrowded feeder. The high-pitched notes: pee-pee-ti sihihihihihi, pee-pee-ti sihihihihihi fill the air with their silvery trill. While the bee rushes about from the fuchsia to the lavender before settling gentling on the verbena. Even as the wind begins to lead the trees in a dance of ecstasy under the brilliant blue summer sky. Only to be joined in by the shrill sirens of the passing police cars and ambulances. Just then the phone rings. It is my mother. And a moment passes away.

Reality once again refuses to get bound. Time, neither a moment nor eternity appear sufficient. Leaving us with at best a perception. Subjective and inadequate. Just a little short of untrue.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The perils of indignation.

You read a totally irrelevant comment on some link posted somewhere in the World Wide Web and feel a need to react. The fact that the author of the comment is a simple-minded moron so self-absorbed in his (yes, it had to be the male species) insignificant little existence that he rushes where angels fear to tread and ends up defending something that is not even being attacked. He may choose to worship false gods and chase hollow ideals but why does he feel the need to impose his stupidity on everyone? What makes him think that he is so smart that he can challenge well-established facts? And with every word typed one grows angrier and ones thoughts build up to add to the raging bonfire and everything is on the verge of burning to ashes.

But then just in the nick of time one recollects Virginia Woolf and is reminded of the perils of writing in indignation. As she notes when discussing the fate of women writers in general and Charlotte Bronte in particular, “She will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?” All characteristics exhibited in the opening paragraph.

So instead one does the sensible thing and picks up A Room of One’s Own and makes peace by accepting the fact that “Life for both sexes—and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement—is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion that we are, it calls for confidence in oneself.”

Thursday, 9 July 2009

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

It is 17 August, 1988, a Hercules C130, the world’s sturdiest plane, carrying Pakistan’s military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, several Pakistani army generals, Arnold Raphel, the US Ambassador to Pakistan and the head of the US military aid mission to Pakistan crashes and all of them perish. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Isn’t the scenario perfect, just like a deliciously ripe Alphanso mango, for conspiracy theories?

So here comes a book that probably does what no other book from the subcontinent has done better, explore all the possibilities ranging from the usual mechanical failure to the CIA’s impatience to a blind woman’s curse carried by a crow (remember how people shoo away the crow that sits on the rooftop and caws) to well, a case of exploding mangoes to present an outrageously funny look at what has become one of the most persistent riddles of our lifetime. I mean Gen. Zia’s death and not why the world keeps referring to Pakistan as a ‘failed state’. Though if one reads between the lines hidden beneath the satire is the tale of why politics in Pakistan is such a risky business.

But what the book really excels in is bringing to life the man who ruled Pakistan with an iron fist from 1978 till his mysterious death in 1988. Readers are warned you’ll never look at General Zia ul Haq, “…a much photographed man. The middle parting in his hair glints under the sun, his unnaturally white teeth flash, his mustache does its customary little dance for the camera,” in the same way ever again. Especially, after his little escapade on the bicycle and when he encounters a certain verse in the holy Quran.

But much like the usual suspects in the subcontinent’s conspiracy theories other character too put in an appearance. The US Ambassador to Pakistan, the army generals, the Arab Sheikhs, the famous female foreign correspondent, the Secretary General of the All Pakistan Sweepers Union, the oft ignored First Lady of Pakistan, the gentlemen who work for the Pakistani intelligence and of course Ali Shigri, an Air Force cadet, commanding the Silent Drill Squad and narrating this extraordinary tale. They all come together to produce a dark and acerbic recreation of the events that lead to 17 August 1988. And also shed light on the factors at play even today in what will go on to become another episode in Pakistan’s tragic history.

Read the book if like any other person born in the subcontinent you too accept it as a given fact that behind every small political move there is a giant conspiracy. For though you can blame the people of the subcontinent for a lot of things, political naivety isn’t one of them.

You can read Mohammed Hanif's article Ten Myths about Pakistan published in TOI here.

(Afterthoughts on books: part 11)

Monday, 6 July 2009

Birds being birds

"Is this what I think it is?" Chaffinch inspecting the seeds to
ensure they are organic sunflower seeds.

"If it's good to drink it's even better to dip your head in."
Blue tit at the bird bath.

"I am out of here." Mallard exhausted by the demands of her
growing brood (not in picture) decides to take a break.

"I told you to keep to your side." Coots politely settling their
territorial dispute.

"The view has to be seen to be believed." A juvenile Mallard
learning to do what a duck does best.

And this one is just for the sheer joy of watching birds
being birds.
(All photographs by Anvita Lakhera.)

Sunday, 5 July 2009

A Wimbledon Story

You say, “Why don’t you watch the Wimbledon? You should go and watch one match at least.” And I reply something about traveling and spending money on going to see places. But once I keep the phone down I think of her and I think of him and I think of them and Wimbledon. And naturally I smile.

It is 1992. Wimbledon quarterfinals. Andre Agassi is playing against Boris Becker. Though somehow my mind always recollects it as the final. Probably because that year Andre Agassi won the Championship. However I turn my thoughts back to them. He supports Becker and when inquired she replies Agassi. She watches the spark in his eyes dull a little on hearing these words. Becker wins the first set. Agassi the next two and then Becker the fourth set. With the final point earned Agassi wins the game, set, and match.

And he looks at her. For a moment. He who had been certain ever since the day they had met. She meets his gaze but she is the one who isn’t sure. And then Agassi wins the match. Did she feel it then? And even if she did, did she let herself believe that it was so?

Alas! We shall never know. For here the story ends. But I smile for I have faith in him. He who was sure all along. I am sure she’ll get there someday soon.

Friday, 3 July 2009

London: Some observations

Living in the City the first thing that comes to notice are bankers. Between five and six in the evening if one is anywhere near Bank chances are one will be surrounded by men and women attired in crisply tailored black. Quite appropriate for these times, considering the death of capitalism. Note to self not a good idea to wear a pink overcoat. But if one looks closely one will find that girl after girl in her black, whatever brand it is that posh people in London patronize (remember the pink overcoat), wearing running shoes under her formals. Probably to kick-start the economy though more likely for running down the escalator to catch the first train to escape this horrorscape filled with zombie institutions too big to fail devouring the life essence of this world. And by that I mean money.

Speaking of life essence brings to mind another hard to miss and probably more life essence enhancing aspect of London (i.e. if we follow Mr. Pico Iyer’s excellent treatise “The Joy of Less”), the parks of London. What are the chances that if one looks out of the window, if one is lucky to live opposite a London park, one will spot someone running or cycling down the towpath. I would say 100 percent. But the even more life essence affirming like thing is when these someone, for whom cycling is a means of transport for going from point A to point B and not just a hobby, dismount from their bicycles, pull out a bag from their backpack and start feeding breadcrumbs to the ducks. Or the two ‘rough-looking’ guys stop to sit on the railing at the edge of the pond, with the setting sun pouring through the gap between the buildings casting a golden glow on their backs, and watch the ducklings at play. The fact that they are feeding them potato chips is another matter. And at the moment we are focused on life essence so now’s not the time to bring up the effect of salt on a bird’s nervous system.

Parks naturally lead one to think of summer. And summer means girls in summer dresses trampling around in ‘chappals’. Suddenly everything is illuminated and one appreciates why Mike Jagger wanted to paint them black. At least then they wear running shoes. Seriously people in India you don’t realize the talent you possess to walk in a dignified or nonchalant manner (take your pick) when your toes are free to wriggle in the cool breeze. Thank your ma, your grandma and whomever else it was who shouted at you all those years ago to walk properly when wearing chappals.

But these same girls who can carry black formals with running shoes and not carry at all summer dresses with chappals have a talent that one could offer both eyes and both hands for. Often one find girls dressed as one has already mentioned a million times before walking down the street with their bags and dinners from Sainsbury’s in one hand and a thick book with the thumb holding open the page they are on in the other. They read a line, look up to see where they are going, read another line, and so on and so forth. Every action is so fine tuned and executed at such a fast pace that they appear to continuously keep reading while Saraswati in return for their exceptional devotion magically removes every obstacle from their path.

Then there are football fans who drink gallons of beer and eat fish and chips by the bucket full (I suppose) and sing or cry depending on the fortunes of their team and often have a golden Pomeranian named Rosie. When you meet them at the florists close to the corner pub they may even let you pet Rosie or say goodbye to her when its time for her to go home for dinner. However sometimes they may get arrested for fatally stabbing someone.