I want to climb on a rooftop and shout to the world I want to call you all, one by one, and talk and talk I want to just jump up and down, and down again Till I have to no more voice and no more breath. I want to keep smiling till my cheeks…
Vishu, the harvest festival, the beginning of a brand new year. Konna, the beautiful yellow flowers that adorn every garden and every house. Kani – a platter arranged with utmost care the previous night so it would be the first thing you see in the morning. Waking up to start the new year with gods…
Ben Okri, the booker prize winning author, was one of the panelists at the Oxford Lit Fest last weekend. And that’s what he autographed for me. Me like..:-) Funny thing was, he wanted the book. Apparently, he had never seen this edition of his own book. Think it was bought in South Africa, and…
James Lasdun at the Guardian has a wonderful piece on the short story as an art form and reviews some of the best collections of 2009: “…it raises the question of whether there is any special quality, aside from length, that distinguishes the short story from other literary forms, and if so to what extent…
I love traveling and spend a lot of time on the road. In every trip, no matter how short and in every city, no matter how beautiful – I visit the bookshops. Prague was no exception. People fondly recall many things after they return from a trip to Prague – after all, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – but I remember the bookshops the most. There were so many of them, and so many Czech authors whose books I had struggled to find elsewhere. From Jan Neruda to Josef Barák to Jaroslav Seifert and of course, the Kafka, I returned with two bag-loads more than I left with.
Today, I will write about Too Loud a Solitude. Of all the books I picked up, this one tugged at my heart strings a little bit more than the rest. For Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude is a book which is deceiving in its simplicity, scathing in its humor and uncompromising in its honesty, but most of all, it is profound in a way that makes you think about it for a long time even after you have turned its last page.
From the very first line,
“For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story.”
I was hooked. Fortunately, the book was short enough that I did not have to skip too many meals to finish it one sitting.
The book is about Hanta, an old man who has spent his entire life compacting paper, but is overflowing with ideas.
“I am jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me.”
An unusual character, the book explores his world in minute detail and within the narrow perspective of his vision, which rarely expands beyond the compacting mill in the cellar, rife with mice and his home, that is so full of books that it might he collapse if he turns in his sleep.
Hanta is also an alcoholic, claiming that he has “drunk so much beer over the past thirty-five years that it could fill an Olympic pool, an entire fish hatchery”, but it is only to “muster the strength for his godly labors”. Despite his job of destroying books, he has saved quite a lot of them from the evil shredder – either giving away or selling, but mostly just stacking up in his tiny home. But Hanta, who may be a nitwit according to his boss, is also a fountain of knowledge, from which can sprout Talmud, Hegel, Kant or Lao-Tzu.
“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel”
In Hanta – the destroyer of the written word, yet also its perpetrator – Hrabal has found the perfect setting to examine the permanence and abstraction of ideas, the inevitable march of time which threatens the relevance of all of us, the different kinds of relationships one can have with the written word and the myopic nature of an individual’s perspectives.
“And so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.”
The novel might have a narrow focus, but it also covers the gruesome details of Hanta’s existence, from the mice in his cellar to the details of his mother’s and uncle’s deaths and his haranguing boss. He also talks about his unlucky love life: of Manca, “who never having known glory, will never relinquish shame” and the nameless gypsy girls who “had their pictures taken everyday, but never saw a shot of themselves”.
Despite its short length and outlandish setting, the novel is rife with symbolism. It is as much a thought-provoking satire as it is a literary treat. If you haven’t read it yet, I don’t know what you are waiting for.
Link: Buy from Amazon
Shashi Tharoor is the Congress candidate for MP from Thiruvananthapuram (TVM). I am intrigued, and excited. And for someone who think politics is best left to politicians, that is saying a lot.
Honestly, I don’t know much about him. But I don’t care. Here is a man who is capable, has seen the world and if he wants to be corrupt, has plenty of bigger opportunities elsewhere. So I am inclined to trust his motives, and his promises.
Kerala is, quite frankly, a mess. Since I started up on my entrepreneurial path a little while ago, I have been thinking of Kerala every single day. I am trying to set up some part of my business in India, and quite naturally, I had decided on Kerala. Every one who is a friend, and who decided to consider me a friend just so they can advise me – told me that would be a very stupid decision.
If you want work done, set it up in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, even if it is just a stone’s throw away from the Kerala border. You can even employ Malayalees if you like – they will work as long as they are outside of Kerala. But do not, under any circumstance, start a venture in Kerala.
I have seen time and again that you cannot have sustainable development without a healthy dose of entrepreneurship. And I wanted to do my bit in bringing it to Kerala. I have a dream. And now I am asked to throw it all away, if I want to survive. I toss and turn in bed every night, trying to choose between my business sense and my patriotism. Let’s not wonder now whether it is really patriotism or the thought of a beach-villa-cum-office that I am more unwilling to sacrifice. In any case, the point is – when it comes to running a business, setting up a venture, or sometimes, just getting things done – Kerala ranks right at the bottom. You could blame it on incompetent politicians, our communist legacy, the risk-averse culture or just the general laziness of the people.
Finally, I see a ray of hope.
I don’t know whether Shashi Tharoor will or can change anything. He is a proud Indian, as he made clear from his many writings, but as I am digging through his book (which I quite coincidentally picked up last week), I see no pride in being a Keralite. He speaks no Malayalam, and despite the occasional reference to compulsory holidays he had to endure with parents, there is not much in there about Kerala. So why did he choose TVM of all places?
It is quite an interesting city, really. Every time I visit the city, I never fail to visit the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple . I was there just this Jan, and just for the beauty and tranquillity of the temple, I fell a little in love with the city. But what else is there to talk about TVM?
There is always a random group of people protesting in front of the secretariat. That will block traffic, so there is inevitably a traffic jam. Fish is very cheap and tasty. Malayalam, as it is spoken here and nowhere else, has the same word for baby and shit – perhaps something to do with frustrated mothers? It is still an old city, losing out to cities like Kochi and Trichur, when it comes to the chic-factor. Some of the streets are impeccably clean, while others are unbelievably dirty. There is a huge monstrous piece of art, shaped like a woman, which lies on the Shankumukham beach, while it is close to impossible to find even a single local woman reclining in a relaxed fashion on any of TVM’s beautiful beaches.
I bet all these had nothing to do Tharoor’s choice of TVM, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. As long as he does something, something useful, I can live with not knowing why.
So, what exactly is Tharoor planning for our dear TVM?
1. The Vizhinjam port project. Once complete, the port will be able to handle over four million containers annually and would create 5,000 direct and 150,000 indirect jobs. I believe it is essential for Thiruvananthapuram to support this idea. But we must fight for the displaced people from the Vizhinjam port trust area who must not become the victims of development.
It’s about time Kerala had a port of global standards, but as I read this, the first thing that comes to mind is protesting people. It reminds me of Smartcity where people are displaced to make room for this business park, which led to innumerable protests and discussions, and which now doesn’t seem to house that many companies or employ enough people. Good idea, bad execution. Hope we don’t go that same path again.
I wish Tharoor would elaborate more on the how, and not just the what.
2. Create a high court bench in TVM
Honestly, can someone tell me why I should care about this?
3. Development of world-class facilities
Again, should I care so much? How would a convention centre help the masses?
4. Make TVM the capital of India’s biodiversity
I am marginally excited. Good research is always great, but from what I have heard about what goes on in ISRO, may be its not just about establishing these institutes but doing something about what goes on inside them.
5. An education capital for the region – equivalent of Boston or Cambridge in America
Now he’s got me listening. This is fantastic, and if he can pull this one off, it would be worth it. This is actually something that fits in well with Kerala’s culture. Somehow the idea of a university (or centres of learning), and its campus built on the sea, with students and professors having Socratic conversations on the beach has always caught my imagination.
6 – n: Build a knowledge economy, attract and use NRI funds for the state’s development, improve civic facilities (do MPs do this?), preservation of the great heritage buildings, ..the list goes on, and it is impressive.
I particularly like this:
“Why can’t processions be obliged to march in single file on the side of the road, rather than occupying the entire carriageway? Why can’t megaphones and loudspeakers be restricted to specific areas and times? Why should agitators be allowed to paralyze the lives, work, and travel of ordinary people going about their business?”
May be it is just my cynicism, but I am inclined to reply, “Hello!? Have you been to Kerala? Have you met a Malayalee?”.
“the national legislature should take an interest in using the country’s laws to benefit the common man and woman who wishes to lead their lives in peace.”
Some of the best memories in my schooldays were of days where the classes had to be cancelled because of strikes, and we could do whatever we wanted. Well, now that its next generation’s turn, I am totally for minimal disruption!
On a more serious note, Tharoor is talking about changing the very fabric of our culture, the character of the people. Ambitious indeed, but how realistic is it?
This sounds good though:
“I will publish details regularly of my actions and initiatives, provide full and audited accounts of the expenditure of MPLADS funds, and report regularly to the people about progress or lack thereof on the issues relating to their well-being. If Thiruvananthapuram is to be a global city of the 21st century, it deserves an MP who upholds the highest global standards of today.”
Now, should I bet on this guy and start my business in Kerala? May be, may be not. But I would vote for him, if I could. There is a lot less to lose with that one.
If you could vote, I hope you would too. If nothing, Tharoor might write a good book about Kerala and its development. That’s more than some of our previous MPs have achieved for us.
Photo courtesy: ritesh3
FT just announced their Boldness in Business Awards. Winners include Selco for CSR and Google for entrepreneurship Interesting comments on boldness vs. recklessness too on the site. Regardless of the obvious theoretical differences, the line between the two is very thin. I can’t decide which side I am on. Only time can tell.
Have you ever felt like there is so much inside of you that it can hardly wait to get out? That the voices in your head just wouldn’t stop talking? Constant travel, personal tragedy and changes in life have all been playing havoc on my writing. And when I have kept away from putting words on paper for so long, I feel bottled up. Like a stream boiling underneath a mountain ready to spring forth. Yet the stream has no clue how to be born. There are no how-to books for stream dummies. Should it be one angry swish from the weakest spot that would change the landscape forever? Or should it try different spots across the terrain, to possibly form a calmer landscape of intertwining little streams?
As my metaphor gets confusing, I abandon it for more practical ways to channel my writing. For quite literally, I don’t know where to start, there just seems to be so much buzzing around. I decide to pick up the first random book in my bookshelf for inspiration and follow its lead. Secretly I was hoping for Erich Segal’s Love Story which has been missing in action ever since we moved, which I had been dying to reread and also because I wanted to write about love (and I swear watching reruns of Sex and the City had nothing to do with it). As luck would have it, I picked up Shashi Tharoor’s Bookless in Baghdad.
How does a collection of random thoughts inspire one to write a coherent piece? Well, it can be interpreted as nothing but the license to write a collection of random thoughts, exactly what I was trying to prevent. Well, some days you just can’t seem to win. Or rather, no matter how hard you try to lose, you win.
How do you know you love someone? In the spirit of randomness, I will give you my answer without the explanation. The one that I recently figured out. If I had picked up Segal’s Love Story, I promise things would have been different.
If you can cross every mountain, swim every sea, just to see someone smile, that’s what they call love. If you can give up all that you held dear and fought hard for, just for a glimmer of hope that it might make someone else a little happier, then it must be love. But above all, if you can feel someone’s pain and someone’s joy as if it were your own, it has to be love. When a tiny tear tripping down his face pulls your heart apart and it wouldn’t stop hurting till his pain is your pain, his tears are your tears, you know. You just know. This must be love.
Where is that goddamn book? Have you ever wondered why people flock to fiction? Why writers write fiction and why readers read fiction? Why create a world of your own, not knowing whether anyone else would want to visit and if people were to visit, you are unable to dictate that they leave their baggage at the door? Why lovingly carve out characters when they may never meet a soul beyond yourself or your immediate friends, and even if your book were to be a best-seller, knowing that the characters you envisioned will never be met with the same love and care that you nurtured them with? Why spend hours scribbling word after word, sentence after sentence, and sometimes going back and editing so that the gaps your pen skipped because your mind glossed over, because it is too familiar or too painful, can be filled – not because your mind doesn’t want to skip it, but because you want someone else to understand it too. Precisely because of that. Precisely because you want someone else to comprehend it too, and feel what you feel, and connect at the most human, most basic level of all. And fiction gives us the façade to do it.
Which is why we read too. Reading is easier than writing, because someone has done the hard work for us. They have created the house, put the furniture in, and they are inviting us in. I need Segal’s Love Story because I want someone to tell me what I feel. I want to share without giving. I want to lose myself in an imaginary world, an alternate reality, as an affirmation of the reality I am living in. I want to take out just one aspect of my everyday life, and blow it up out of proportion so that that bit becomes the whole. Love becomes the world. Everything else fades into the background. And I am consumed by it. As is everything else.
I have a vague suspicion about what happened to Segal. While we were moving countries and houses as a consequence, for what seems to me the umpteenth time, Srijith had separated a pile of books. I come home one day to see three dismantled bookshelves, five hundred odd books strewn over the floor and a neat pile of about twenty kept away from the rest. They were to be sold!! What treason! He was destroying my home. Every nomad eventually comes to a definition of home. It is sort of ingrained in our human nature – the need to define a home, to identify a place, or sometimes a concept, or rarely just an abstraction where one belongs. I have a simple definition – home is where my books are. I guard them with an almost fanatic fervour. Imagine my consternation when I find that there are twenty books – twenty bricks from my home – about to be sold, handed over to another mortal for a few meagre euros. And imagine my disbelief, for I was unable to muster any other emotion, when I find among the doomed, Segal’s Love Story.
I was recently reading an interview with the poet laureate, Kay Ryan. A celebrated poet, she seems in every way so different from me that I could not find even a shred in that personality that I could identify with. Yet I like her poems.
“A bitter pill / doesn’t need / to be swallowed / to work. Just
reading your name / on the bottle / does the trick./ As though there
were some anti-/placebo effect. / As though the / self were eager / to be wrecked.”
I can’t even put my finger on the sense of rhythm that I feel when I read it aloud. Yet it resounds again and again, as if a lullaby sung to make you think while you sleep. May be that’s why I like her – poetry is the song that connects. The equivalent of fiction where the author requires the reader to do a lot more of the work. Deceiving in the simplicity of words, disguised in the rhythm of a musical note, it makes us believe that we have heard it all before, but there is more. There is always more.
In any case, the point of bringing up the Kay Ryan interview was a specific discussion on how she does her work. She said her mind is a blank, an empty slate, most of the time. And it was so incomprehensible to me. My mind is always full. Overflowing is how I usually feel. And for a long time, I thought that’s how everyone feels.
It’s difficult to accept people who are different from you. Yet that is love. Ability to accept the difference. Not just accept, but embrace it. And never let it go. Never wanting to let it go. Flourish and let flourish. And not insist that the flowers that bloom need to be this way or that way, it will most probably bloom in an altogether different way.
I do not love Kay Ryan, well not in the socially accepted conventional sort of way that one reserves for the dearest in their lives; certainly not even the most touching of poetry moves me that much. The emptiness of mind discussion made me think of how difficult it was for me to accept that concept. How difficult it was for me to comprehend something that I had never experienced. They say that once your mind is stretched by an experience, it never regains its original shape. You cannot “unexperience” something, or “unthink” a thought. Yet there are concepts, which may be everyday realities to some, but are abstractions to me, because I can never experience them, and will always remain abstractions for me, because I will never be able to.
Yet one day I got over it. I woke up one morning, and I believed it is possible. My mind will always be overflowing, but perhaps it is a possibility, however rare and improbable, it is a distinct possibility that some people have blank slates for their mental states. Blessed are they, who can then choose, what to scribble on their fresh consciousness. Believing without experiencing, trusting without knowing, embracing without questioning, that must be love.
Srijith tells me he took out Segal’s Love Story from the pile before he sold the rest. I believe him.
Perhaps it has a lot to do with growing up. Does everyone go through all stages of life – childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, old-age-in-denial and eventually old age? We all have pre-conceived, often romantic notions about each of them, no doubt augmented by fiction whichever media it chooses to be told in, yet I wonder whether we all experience them. Of course, none of us can stop the march of time, and physically we will all do the inevitable journey through our life cycle, yet how long each stage is depends on each of our lives – and it comes under constant pressure, with ever increasing life spans and changes in expectations across generations. The stage our parents experienced in their young adulthood (which is what I choose to call my current phase) is not what we experience. The stage our parents find themselves in now is not what our grandparents lived through. We have no precedents really. So do these stages of life hold any meaning, if there are no definitions to go along with them?
Till recently, I used to say, “When I grow up, I will become…“. Someone approaching the big thirty would have been considered quite grown up in almost all places, across all times, yet I think in my generation I am not such a misfit. To not have your life figured out by the thirties is not a disaster. But I have stopped saying, “When I grow up…“. Very recently. I wonder whether it is a reflection of my growing cynicism or just me taking responsibility for my life. Growing up is probably about realising there are many answers to a question and that one is not necessarily more correct than another. Growing up is knowing that you have to choose a path, in fact you actually have chosen a path, and there is no turning back. Growing up is feeling happy and contented in the landscape you see around in the path you have chosen, and in case it strikes you as not what you signed up for, may be doing something to change it.
I picked up Tharoor’s Bookless in Baghdad from my bookshelf for inspiration, yet I think this essay is as much about Segal’s Love Story, if not more. Guess it just goes to show that life may be a box of chocolates, but whether you decide to eat ice cream instead is entirely dependent on you.
I just read Albert Camus’ The Plague – Camus being Camus, I was ready for a slow read , but after part I (the book is divided into five parts), I could hardly put the book down. Consequently, I am done – in the literal sense of the word. But perhaps, not really. Even after starting on my next book, I feel my thoughts returning to the life and choices of the characters of The Plague.
For the uninitiated, The Plague is an account of life in Oran, a city in Algeria that finds itself, rather unexpectedly, in the middle of a deadly epidemic. The book follows the reactions of various individuals as well as the collective, as they progress through the various stages of the plague. I am not sure I would call it an existential classic, but it definitely does a phenomenal job of examining the absurdity of life, its irrationality and human reactions to anything that they have no control over.
One of the emotions that Camus paints beautifully, especially in the early stages of the plague, is the feeling of exile. The town walls have been closed and almost all means of communication have been stopped. Telegrams have become the only means of sending and receiving messages of any sort.
“Creatures bound together by mutual sympathy, by flesh and heart, were reduced to finding the signs of this ancient communion in a ten-word dispatch, all written in capitals. And since, as it happens, the forms of words that can be used in a telegram are quickly exhausted, before long whole lives together or painful passions were reduced to a periodic exchange of stock phrases such as “Am well”, ‘Thinking of you’, ‘Affectionately yours”.
We don’t need to imagine a plague to appreciate the gravity of the message. Perhaps it has been exaggerated by the unusual circumstance, but it is hard to deny that this is increasingly relevant in our interconnected global world. Far from isolation we are, you might say. But then reducing exchanges to stock phrases must be all too familiar. Loved ones who knew every aspects of our lives are reduced to being recipients of abstract accounts of general happiness, on account of the distance that separates us. Friends are emailed that all is well and that the summer is bright. For, after all, how much distance and isolation can you conquer with a message, no matter how much it is filled with love?
Which brings me to abstraction. To not experience something is to, in a way, alleviate it to a level of general abstraction.
“He tried to put together in his head what he knew about the disease. Figures drifted through his head and he thought that the thirty or so plagues recorded in history had caused nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought a war, one hardly knows what a dead person is. And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination. The doctor recalled the plague of Constantinopole which, according to Procopius, claimed ten thousand victims in one day. Ten thousand dead equals five times the audience in a large cinema. That’s what you should do. You should get all the people coming out of five cinemas, take them into a square in the town and make them die in a heap; then you would grasp it better.”
Even after reading the book, the whole concept of the plague remains an abstraction to me, the removed reader. Just a means to understand the message, the object that is separate from the idea. And as long as I haven’t felt it, seen it, heard it, touched it, it will remain an abstraction. As will most things in life, some pleasant, some unpleasant. Such is the blessing of life, though perhaps one less acknowledged.
Tarrou, undeniably one of the more interesting characters in the book, notes in his diary:
“Question: how can one manage not to lose time? Answer: experience it at its full length. Means: spend days in the dentist’s waiting room in an uncomfortable chair; listen to lectures in a language that one does not understand, …”
If we want to save time, and if doing unpleasant things seem to stretch time, why don’t we do it? Sure, you can appeal to the conventional wisdom that the time you have is constant – 60 seconds is 60 seconds no matter what you do. But then, I could argue that fragmentation of time itself is artificial and really, just a convention. When you wish you had 48 hours in a day, you don’t wish for 48 equally fragmented segments of time, but that you could achieve double the amount of whatever it is that you wish to achieve in 24. The end goal is not to save time, but really to have the perception of saved time. Then why not do something that manages not to lose time, especially when it is so obvious and easy?
Paneloux, the priest, no less of an interesting character, first thinks of the plague as punishment from God. Towards the later part of the book, after coming in direct contact with the disease, he delivers a controversial sermon, where he claims in effect, that there is no middle way – either you love God, or you hate God. Either you accept or you reject. Or more eloquently,
“When innocence has its eyes gouged out, a Christian must lose his faith or accept the gouging out of eyes”.
In other words,
“If a priest consults a doctor, there is a contradiction”.
The book reaches its epitome of eloquence in Rieux’s thoughts, almost towards the end of the plague, when the town had begun rejoicing over the imminent freedom from pestilence:
“But what had he, Rieux, won? All he gained was to have known the plague and to remember it, to have known affection, and to have one day to remember it. All than a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory. Perhaps that was what Tarrou called winning the game! But if that is what it meant to win the game, how hard it must be to live only with what one knows and what one remembers, deprived of what one hopes. ”
Perhaps the book was an allegory on France’s Nazi occupation. Perhaps it was a fictional account crafted as a medium for exposition on the absurdity of life. Perhaps it was meant to exposit and acknowledge the sterility of life without illusions. Perhaps what I had read from it was nothing which the writer intended.
Does it matter really?
Paul Graham has an interesting essay – Startups in 13 sentences I particularly like the one about “Don’t give up”. It’s surprisingly true of most professions – you will eventually succeed, sometimes just through sheer perseverance. However, sometimes it is better to give up, and the trick is to know when to give up and…