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Posts tagged “books

Little English School Girl



The year was 1927 or 1928. Or was it 1929? Not too sure. A little girl, not more than 8 or 9 years old, was playing outside her home in Kumbakonam, a small town south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. Her hair was drenched in warm coconut oil and held in two tight braids. Two flamboyant ribbons were generously tied around the two braids into large sloppy bows. She wore a cotton long-skirt and blouse, that ubiquitous little-girl attire, Paavaadai Choka. It was evening. Suddenly, her father emerged on the road outside and she ran to the gate to greet him. Affectionately, he placed his hand on her shoulder and braced himself to field all the questions his little girl launched at him. As they conversed, they both moved inside the house. He sat down to a snack of freshly prepared hot idlis that his wife had brought from the kitchen. The little girl sat on his lap, regaling him with school stories until he finished his snack.

After having poured her heart out, Ambuja ( for that was the little girl’s name) ran away to resume her play. Her father, an English professor in a college in Kumbakonam turned to his wife and gave her the news. He had been transferred to Patnam. The word itself meant city, but those days that meant only Madras, now called Chennai. At dinner, the couple broke the news together to their children. While the younger boy was too small to understand, Ambuja was delighted. The big city, at last! Oh and she will learn English. Kumbakonam had only Tamil medium schools those day and she was in one. Her Tamil was good but being her father’s daughter, she had this strong urge to speak English like him and have conversations like him. This move to the city meant getting admission into an English medium school and her dream seemed that much closer.

Her mother, too, had dreams. Moving to the city meant some lifestyle changes. Changes for the better, mostly. Oh how she would dress this precious first-born of hers so that she could go like an English child to school. No more these long skirts and tops that everybody in villages wore. She would choose the finest cloth and stitch her daughter the finest frocks with lace and satin ribbons.

That summer was a busy one. Ambuja’s mother was preoccupied making a whole new wardrobe for her daughter. On a Professors salary, there were times that she felt she was going overboard. But a little chat with her husband would usually set it right. Ambuja’s father did not want his daughter to want for anything and a little something here and there that might require a small sacrifice from him was something he would gladly do. And so it was that the frocks were stitched, gowns bought, and matching socks and shoes and hair-clips sought.

The family moved to madras just in time for the start of the new academic year. Due to her excellent grades, Ambuja had no problem getting admission in school. And then it was time for first day of school. Mother and daughter were excited. With a gleam in their eyes, they went about getting ready for the school in Patnam. After getting ready, they both looked with satisfaction at the mirror in front of them. Yes. That reflection was exactly what they were both aiming for. She looked like a little brown English school girl. With confidence oozing from every pore, mother and daughter set out to school.

Mother left Ambuja at the door of her class room. She strutted into her class and sat at a bench only to discover everyone else around her in the much maligned Paavaadai Choka, their hair, oil-drenched and in two plaits and simple sandals on their feet. ‘Why! They all looked like the village girls!’, she exclaimed in her head. And then the distressing thought struck her that this might not be an English medium school after all. She knew her father would set everything right. But how could he make such a terrible mistake, in the first place. Her mind was so full of these thoughts, she was hardly able to concentrate on the lesson taught.

But she was a good student, so she forced her mind away and towards the lesson. To her surprise the lesson was in English. She didn’t understand a word. Miserable! How was she to keep up her good academic run if she doesn’t understand a word the teacher said. And worse, everyone else was responding in English. All these girls in their long skirt and blouse, looking no different from the village girls, were actually speaking impeccable English, with the teacher and also with each other.

Ambuja, a vision in her lacy frock and socks and shoes, was, by this time, almost in tears. As she felt the other students’ eyes boring into her, her consternation increased. She wished she could sink into the earth. But no such luck! She gulped back her tears and somehow, managed to survive her class.

Back home, in a fit of rage, she threw her school satchel one direction and kicked of her shoes and socks in four other directions. She burst into an inconsolable volley of tears and sunk into her mother’s arms. Her mother calmed her down, at last. Together they decided, not for them this show and pretense. And when her father came home, she asked him to teach her English. He gathered her in his arms and said, ‘ oh why not! We will start today.’


Ambuja is my grandmother. May be I should say ‘was’, because she passed away in January this year at the age of 91. Nothing deterred her on the academic front after this. At the end of that school year, she received a prize for getting the highest overall percentage across all the classes. She not only mastered the English language but read novels and books in it until almost two years before her death when her faculties began to fail her. The last book she read in our house perhaps this was the last book she read ever- was Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’. She and I had a quiet and hilarious conversation about it after. But that is for a different blog post. 🙂

I wasn’t around in 1927 or 28 or 29. I have liberally used my poetic license. And I dare say, my mother too, whom I heard this story from in the first place, has used hers. Needless to say, this is only an attempt to capture my grandmother’s spirit and the spirit of those times.


In defence of my right to not provide a defence

The freedom of expression is well and truly under fire. All our national debates seem to revolve around some form of freedom of expression or the other. With social media, much of our personal debates also seem to centre around the freedom of expression.

Take, for instance, this reprimanding email (from an aunt) that my sister and I received for quarreling on my Facebook wall. For the record, the quarrel was in jest. And yet the email told us off for fighting in public.  Just to put things in perspective, I have been an adult for more than 10 years now and my sister is 5 years my junior. I reassured my aunt that it was indeed in jest.

But what if it wasn’t?  What if I did have a public spat with someone? Wasn’t it my right? What was it that made someone wag-a-finger-scold us? What I concluded was this. Yes, I had the right to have a public spat. And yes, it is none of my aunt’s business. No, there is no question about it. And yes, I have wasted my time and energy thinking about it. So does this mean that my freedom of expression is not important? It is only as important as my aunt’s scolding has made it out to be. The freedom of expression debate sticks us into a polarized world of pro-against that, in reality, exists only in the minds of those against.

The recent Salman Rushdie controversy is a case in point.  Here are the facts. Rushdie might have written blasphemous fiction. However, you cannot issue fatwas and threaten to kill him. He is free to move anywhere in India including Jaipur. If the government cannot provide enough security, it has to acknowledge administrative failure. Period.

No need for Chetan Bhagat’s pompous sound bite imploring the media not to make a hero of Rushdie. No need for Justice Katju’s comments about the poor and substandard nature of Rushdie’s novels. No need, in short, for the media brouhaha that ensued. What else was read and discussed at the Jaipur Literary Festival, we will never know. And all this for a book that was published more than 20 years ago.

I am reminded of a year ago when Aditya Thakeray, that philistine offspring of Udhav Thakeray and undergraduate student at St. Xaviers college, decided that Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey should not form part of English Literature course. I will not go into ‘why’ because, like Rushdie’s blasphemy, the ‘why’ is immaterial. And yet, he wields so much power ( so bad for one so young) that the university vice-chancellor removed it from the syllabus effective immediately.

Like my aunt, these numbskulls have been allowed to determine the contours of the ‘freedom of expression’ debate. The truth is I don’t want to ever defend my right to free speech ever again.

And with that, I am off to read The Satanic Verses (a book that my country has deemed unsuitable for me), a PDF version of which was posted on Facebook by an ever resourceful friend.

The Gaze

The Gaze

I picked up The Gaze after listening to a speech by the author on TED talks. I usually give a   book 50-100 pages to draw me in. And the first couple of chapters were bleak. I didn’t quite understand what was happening and where the plot was headed, mostly because I was busy deciphering a rather confusing narrative. But instead of putting me off, it challenged me to stay on as if to say, ‘see if you can make sense of me’. And I was equal to the task. I decided to let go of the plot- one of the reasons I was getting bogged down was because I was trying to tie it up with the back cover blurb- so I let go of what I had read there. And I just focused on deciphering the narrative. Which was the best thing I could have done. Shafak has a delicious narrative style that sometimes makes you want to re-read sentences/ phrases and sometimes read them aloud (making everybody around you think you are slightly cuckoo). She effortlessly goes back and forth in time and space and has us surrounded not only by people who are stared at but also the quintessential voyeurs i.e. all the rest of us, both men and women.

And it is in this circumstance, when the reader is surrounded by all these fantastic –cum-terrible-cum-wonderful creatures and voyeurs, that she introduces the Dictionary of Gazes. And who better to obsess over it than B-C, the dwarf. The words that go into the Dictionary of Gazes now appear intermittently throughout the novel.

So, in short, I loved reading this novel. And here’s why. The narrator of the story is nameless. This is a brilliant way of telling you that this character is a ‘nobody’. When you name something, you give it that much more importance. In this case, the idea communicated that the character had a really low self-esteem not least because she was obese. The only other place that I have come across the use of the nameless narrator is Ghosh’ s The Shadow Lines.

There are a couple of chapters that go to 18th century Siberia and 17th century France. Shafak is describing the origins of two spectacles that form part of an exhibition of spectacles in 19th century Turkey. Before delving into these background stories she introduces a caveat in the previous chapter suggesting that the reader can skip the following chapter completely if she so wished. I didn’t. Personally, I loved both chapters because it gave a background to something I wasn’t quite comprehending. But more importantly, both of them was talking about some violation that had taken place that had led to the creation of these spectacles. But I also think that her suggestion was interesting. Towards the end she says there are many ways of telling a story and repeats the stories without the key violation. There is no spectacle that is created, rendering both stories useless. One is left wondering if the reader could really have left out those two chapters in her reading. I will never know.

Finally, her language is full of imagery. I also found some ( not too much) similarities with ‘magical realism’. Both of these made the reading so much more engaging. Sometimes imagery is easy to get but this kind of imagery was challenging, and so there was a continuous dialogue with the reader. Her language was also whimsical at times. This was one of the things that took time getting used to. But in the end, it was also one of the things that made the reading challenging and interesting.

A final caveat- this is a translation from the Turkish original. I am not sure how much of the ‘challenging’ aspects of the language of the book comes from it being Turkish and how much from it being an inefficient translation ( if it is). Perhaps someone who knows both languages can tell. But I do wonder how much was lost in translation.

‘Please Sir, I want some more.’

Sometimes the impact of the first sentence in a story or a novel is breathtaking. It just sets such a tone to the novel that it seems unlikely the story should drag. And sometimes the beginning alone sustains the rest of the story. Since I write, I read about writing. There are hundreds of prescriptive websites that instruct you on how to write and what to write. I don’t find their instruction particularly helpful with respect to my writing; but the prescriptions are great for reading. For example, when I read somewhere that it helps to have a beginning that is full of impact, my attention immediately turned to observing and noticing beautiful and momentous beginnings in all that I read ( I also notice not so great beginnings). So here are three of my favourite beginnings for novels and, incidentally, they are all written by the same author. These beginnings make you want to say, “please, sir, I want some more.”

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green islets and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…Fog in theeyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.


–       Bleak House by Charles Dickens

In this paragraph, Dickens has already introduced us to the bleakness. Fog is bleak. The second element of genius is the relevance of the description across time and space. Parts of 21st century industrialising India can also be described in those words. In fact, I was reminded of the paragraph as I walked to work in the morning; as I walked in the smog. And the enveloping ways of the fog is full of constraint, limitations, despair, hopelessness – bleak. The atmosphere is set. Our social strata is set what with ‘shivering little ‘prentice boy’ and ‘ ancient Greenwich pensioners’. We know it is a ‘great(and dirty) city’ that has ‘tiers of shipping’ and ‘waterside pollutions’. We know that this is a story that is set among the working class of a newly industrialised. We know its newly industrialised because ‘people on the bridges (are) peeping over….as if they were up in a balloon hanging in the misty clouds’. An analogy like that demonstrates that this ‘fog’ is new and unexpected much like that balloon in the clouds. There is enough reiteration for the concept to sink in but not too much.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch ofincredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

–       A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After the first sentence, we know this is a historically momentous time; a time of contradictions, of polarisations, of dichotomies. Such turbulence can only be brought about by some kind of macro political, social and/or economic upheaval. And again, it is a description that transcends space and time. Parts of 21st century India could be described this way. And the author knows about this universal significance as he says ‘in short, the period was so far like the present period’.

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”


–       Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times is my favourite Dickens novel. And this is why. The paragraph describes the post-renaisance era’s preoccupation with ‘objective, cold, scientific, rational facts’ (a preoccupation that continues to this day!) So again it describes a situation that transcends time and space. Dickens also lays the foundation for a critique of a system of education that seeks to ‘form minds of reasoning animals’ by ‘plant(ing) nothing else, and root(ing) out everything else (other than facts)’.

The major themes that Dickens introduces in the first paragraphs of each of these novels pervade through the entirety of the novel much like the fog in “Bleak House”. This consistency of genius is what makes books like these read time and again over centuries. Crucial as beginnings are to stories and narratives, it takes genius to see it through in the entire novel. So as a prescriptive for writing, it is useless, atleast for beginners.

Deadly Dichotomies

A smartass once asked my mother, “ oh you read for entertainment too? I thought you only read for edification”. Apart from being obnoxious-bordering-on-the-rude, ridiculous-bordering-on-the-hilarious and patronizing-bordering-on-the-supercilious, that comment is also one of the most meaningless-bordering-on-the-absurd ones I have come across. Speculating on what she meant wouldn’t interest me and is beyond the scope of this article. But I am going to look at this and some other similarly futile distinctions because it entertains me to the hilt, not to mention its edifying side effects 😀

One such is the parallel cinema-commercial cinema dichotomy. The dichotomy includes a certain disdain for commercial cinema as being without content and stupid. A friend once told me that parallel cinema was boring and depressing; he would much rather a bollywood commercial cinema for entertainment. Bheja Fry, which was a big hit at the box office, one that easily could be called a commercial success, was also critically acclaimed. Using political satire and humour as tools, it had a sophisticated plot and script. And whats more, the acting did justice to the story. Bheja Fry was also far from depressing. Dev D, a rather stinging criticism of society, its double standards, patriarchy and more, had its share of songs and dance sequences that made it a commercial success. Dor, not much of a commercial success but one of the most thought provoking (and gently instructive) films made in Indian cinema. It deals with dilemmas, so it keeps the audience restive but in no way depressing. For filmmakers, the dichotomy only serves the purpose of justifying making stupid movies under the commercial cinema banner. And for movie goers, it helps in justifying the lowering of their own standards in cinema.

Another dichotomy is the traditional- innovative. Unlike the parallel-commercial cinema dichotomy, this actually exists and is not as absurd. The ‘traditionalists’ pride themselves because their art form is ‘pure’ and ‘unsullied’. The’ innovativists’ look down upon the other because they have broken the time warp that the ‘traditionalists’ are in. Now, my own insight into this dichotomy comes from my little dabbling with Bharatanatyam. Obviously, the raging debate has some significantly persuasive orators on both sides, but I am going to give my, what might seem rather, raw view of this dichotomy. My previous teachers (and I with them) performed an innovative piece called Shyam Sakhi. The innovation was in the way they approached the subject matter- the relationship between Lord Krishna and Draupadi- and also in form because they had a mixture of Kathak and Bharatanatyam in their dance drama. The innovation in content- this relatively unexplored aspect of the relationship between, not brother and sister as the as is traditionally taken, but between loyal friends- was, in one word, SUPER. The innovation in form, though, left much to be desired. Jhelum Paranjpey’s Leelavati is a brilliant exercise both in innovating content and innovating form. What I gather from these experiences is that one needs to be sufficiently steeped in tradition to make the kind of innovation that is deep enough, in both form and content, for it to be included in the greater knowledge base of the art form. And that’s the only kind of lasting innovation that makes sense in any art form.

Similarly, the dichotomy of entertaining reading- edifying reading is meaningless for the simple reason that everything that’s entertaining is edifying. For something to be edifying, it has to be engaging first; for something to be engaging, it has to be entertaining first. If it isn’t entertaining, it won’t edify. I remember my mother banning some books for us, not because she was concerned about content or anything, she just thought it was necessary to ban them in order to help form a good reading habit. It is true we never since developed any taste for that kind of literature. But I don’t necessarily subscribe to my mother’s view. I think we would have read and dismissed such books on our own. Enid Blyton, for example, we used to read all the time and I loved every bit of it. But now, I cant stand her books. Her books are racist, intolerant to the ‘different’, perpetrates patriarchy and written, many times, with wrong grammar. I have realized these shortcomings albeit late but I have done so irrespective of the fact that I lived and breathed Enid Blyton. Finally, edification ( I hate the word; it sounds so pompous) is something that has more to do with the individual. The individual either learns and improves from whatever it is he is reading ( even deciding to avoid certain kind of literature because it is stupid is an edifying process) or he learns nothing at all. It is possible, after all, to read Crime and Punishment or The Discovery of India and come out with no improvement whatsoever in oneself.

I have just figured that if there is one single thing I really hate in this world it would be dichotomies because most of them are meaningless but, sadly, catching.

P.S Apologies to my readers following the adventures of PC for this grand delay in the appearance of the 4th Chapter. It can be attributed to my relocating woes. But I am sure to update it coming Tuesday. So watch out for it!

Salinger and Catching in the Rye

Recently, not even as long ago as November, I had occasion to recall The Catcher in the Rye fondly. I was presented with a unique situation. A birthday gift had to be bought for a friend. I did what I usually do, asked him what he would like. He said a book would be welcome. Perfect! Theres nothing more I enjoy than shopping for books even if the buys don’t go into my shelves. But his next specification puzzled me. He said a book on economics , globalization etc  or books that envision a different kind of India like imagining India by Nandan Nilekani, would be nice and definitely no poetry and novels. No poetry, I understand. Poetry requires a different sensibility that needs to be cultivated. And I, for one, prefer to  do poetry reading with other people. Unlike reading novels, where I would love to be alone with a book, just the two of us understanding and unraveling each other much like intercourse. But no novels/fiction of any kind, I don’t understand. I understand not like genres of fiction like chic lit, murder mysteries, Victorian novels etc. But to shun all fiction with one stroke is unfathomable. But, he said, fiction is alright  if the guy is using it to depict an alternate reality, like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. So that was my only clue.

So I was determined to find a novel. This is tricky, if you wanted to introduce someone to fiction and get them hooked and stay hooked, finding the right novel would be crucial. I wracked my brains. My favourites, as of now, happen to be literature from the third world, about conflict, colonialism, and life. But I definitely cant give Marquez or Allende, much as I love them for the simple reason, that they are making a statement not only with what they wish to say but also with the way they say it. Magical realism can be very very irritating for the novice reader. Also latin America seemed really far away. Fortunately or unfortunately, my friend and I live in an India where we would be quicker to understand American idioms, language and grief than we will the latin American, African, middle eastern or even rural Indian. So latin American literature, the kind I had read, was out.

What about Indian writing in English? After all, Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh is my all time favourite. And it speaks of so many things. I myself am a great fan of the Stream of Consciousness style of writing. But is that safe for someone who doesn’t have a great opinion of fiction to begin with. Arundhati Roy was also good, not as good as Ghosh or Seth, I think. But the amount of hype that her book had could put anyone off. And most people who I knew had read it either loved it or hated it. Couldn’t take that risk!

What about the classics? Austen is generally considered to be a chic lit person. Dickens is tedious reading. I needed something racy, snappy and over in a week. Hardy, same as dickens and sometimes so much more soap opera’ish than even Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi.

I needed something that was quick to read, easy on the eyes and brain, a kind of book that would be popular among men and didn’t give any inkling of being chick lit. And it was there, just so plain to see, the book was Catcher in the Rye. Most of the boys who I know have read it, seemed to like. It is my dads favourite book. Its easy going and extremely realistic language makes it a quick read. And yet, it critiqued society all through. It was about a young American boy who has been given the axe at this school, Pencey Prep and what he does and thinks on his way home. It is a critique by a child brought up in a wealthy home with all the luxuries of life. It was closer home than any other book I could think of. It was radical.

Harmless looking but potent inside

Holden Caulfield is blasé. He finds most things people say and do in high society phony. Surprising, considering that’s the only society he knows. And he poses some of the most basic questions that all of us have asked of ourselves while growing up. Like if being a lawyer is about making a reputation or about saving people’s lives? How do you know when you save a guy’s life if you really wanted to do it or because you wanted to be a really good lawyer? These are questions that we as adults have ‘resolved’. But have we? Holden’s deliberations, in the entire book including the psychotherapy that he receives at the end are all sharp pointers to the fact that we never never really resolved these issues. We have just let society resolve them for us. And that these questions still give us pangs underneath all that self assuredness. And this is most telling as he recalls the events in the novel after more than a year after it happened, meanwhile undergoing therapy.

I gave my friend a choice between the Catcher in the Rye and Catch 22. He chose Catch 22 after a quick glance at the plot of both novels in Wikipedia. War always wins with boys! But more importantly, I will always remember Salinger as someone who wrote a book that I could use to get someone hooked on to fiction. A pastime from which I myself derive great pleasure.