Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lost and Found

Lost And Found is a well-intentioned book. It has its heart in the right place. It’s only the mind which has gone for a long, meandering walk. The result is a plot so full of strains, threads and characters, that you stand a risk of losing yourself — and not in a good way either.

Lakshmi is the content writer for a porn website about ‘the sensory adventures of a beautiful, blind girl’ called, not very originally, ‘Kavita’. Years back, after a sexual encounter on a train one night, Lakshmi had become pregnant. Of the twins she delivered, one was abandoned in a temple and the other was given to a stranger in a taxi. One twin, Nirmal, is now a street child/actor, and the other, Salim, is a Pakistani jehadi. He is in Mumbai as a part of the 26/11 terror squad.

Placid Hari Odannur, a freelance journalist, is the one who, Lakshmi insists, forced himself on her 16 years ago. So, in the present, a night before the terror attack, she has kidnapped him and tied him up in her bathroom. The attack is set against this melee, a Cow Sena march, the terrorist-minder’s midlife crisis, newspaper-office politics and a rickshaw driver’s day.

In the hands of a less self-conscious writer, one with more rigour and economy of expression, the story might have crackled surreally. Surendran’s sub-plots, multiple threads, and tendency to tell you too much about every minor character, get tiresome. Sometimes you feel he is trying hard — but failing — to evoke a Llosa, a Marquez, and even, in desperation, a Manmohan Desai. His prose sparkles occasionally, when he manages to restrain himself from saying too much.

The book does have a few truly attractive elements. The fact that Surendran locates the story in the 26/11 attacks, and decides to delve a bit deeper there, to humanise those that the media has demonised entirely, is interesting. You get a definite sense of his engagement with Mumbai, its history, its realities and the way forces of fundamentalism play out here. To be fair, the novel does tighten up around halfway through.

The teeming landscape of Lost And Found is peppered with the implausible — a double-edged sword which perhaps only authors with the right mix of control and madness must play with. Because we have grown up on Manmohan Desai, we will buy the long-lost-brothers thing, and even the madness of the fictive world where the entire ‘family’ comes together in the course of one turbulent night. But even within this fictional universe, it’s hard to believe that Lakshmi, 19, educated and middle-class, would have had to run away to Goa and spend her pregnancy selling trinkets on a beach. Finally, it is the ham-handed treatment, the lack of really nuanced dialogues and situations that fails Lost And Found.

The newspaper’s dynamics are entertaining, but Surendran spends too much time exploring the local colour of the journalist’s world to really plunge deep. Lakshmi and her friend Beverly show little or no character development. Hari, too, though 35, seems implausibly adolescent. The street boy and the rickshaw driver often become clichés. Culpably, the characters often use words that are more the author’s than their own.

Surendran probably set off to create a mad, chaotic, maelstrom of a book. What he has done, though, is write one that has so many layers piled on to it that it sags under the weight of its own cleverness. And somehow, you can’t help but resent the writer for botching up what must have been a remarkable idea to begin with.

(This review appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Dec 26)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Small Blunders - Articles from the DNA Column

It’s hard work being a parent. But you’ve probably heard that one before. What is more intriguing is why people have kids in the first place. All through those nine months of nausea, I kept feeling that motherhood was evolution’s biggest joke on women. I figured the first time round you could get conned into it, but why would you do it a second or a third time?

There is of course a good measure of self-love involved in having a baby. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Look ma, I made a little human and it looks, talks and behaves like me. Also, as humans we love to be needed, and after six to eight months of being needed so viscerally by a small human being, you sort of begin to get off on the feeling. No one else looks at you with such adoration, no one else smiles with such delight when he sees your face (he’s probably thinking of lunch, but we'll let that pass). No one else, frankly, needs you with such abandon and such fury. Parenting can give you a heady sense of power. The nicest parents, I guess, are those who don’t misuse that power.

Though it isn’t apparent at first, this need to be needed contributes to some extent to most parents taking the plunge again. Five years after cribbing about pregnancy, when my child was beginning to become her own person, I was willing to go through all of it again just to have another needy little butterball in my arms. At some level, I’m guessing we're hard-wired to procreate, to make copies of ourselves and fill the planet. We could slow down now, because the planet has more than enough of us. But I guess our psyches haven’t heard the news yet.

Having a child is not just one long ego-massage, though (praise from passing strangers dries up after your kid hits seven). An emotional knuckle-duster waits just around the corner. Forget all the physical effort: the night feeds, the colic, the teething, the falls, the terrible twos, the preschool-admission rush, the homework, the tiffins you’ve packed andthe various illnesses and accidents that will have your kachhas in a twist forever.

That’s the easy part compared to the painful realisation that no matter what you do, no matter which toys you get and what theme parties you throw, one day the apple of your eye will turn into a Cynical Young Person. She will probably gobsmack you when she looks back at all your years as a devoted helicopter parent and smirks: ‘Well, I didn’t ask to be born, did I?’ To kids of a certain age, the only perfect parent is their best friend’s dad or mom. You just about manage not to disgrace yourself by starving her to death or something.

Six years back, between spraying out jets of vomit, I paused to ask my mother why women went through so much physical stress just to have children. Convinced that I was insane, and being the queen of understatement that she is, she shrugged and said, ‘Because when you have a child, time passes.’ It’s been over six years now that I’ve been a parent myself, and with every passing day, I realise that raising a child does play tricks with time.

Moments get stretched into lifetimes, so that you never forget that first smile, that first word, that first step. But days turn into liquid whirlwinds and simply swish by, till, before you know it, the adorable little cuddlebunny is a snarling teen. One more swish and he becomes a parent himself, aware of how much trouble raising a child can be, and finally, finally ready to be grateful for all you did.

Maybe mom was right. Maybe it’s worth it after all!

This article appeared in the DNA on Sunday, Sept 26, 2010
Link here: http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/comment_mama-knows-best_1443353

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tales of a City

Most people who live in Mumbai feel a peculiar sort of love for it. Many things are wrong with this dystopian, poorly-planned city, but most of us probably couldn’t bear to live elsewhere. If, like me, you feel this mix of emotions, then you’re going to love Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables.

The book pulls together Mumbai’s many narratives – cinematic, literary, architectural and artistic. It is a tale of the legends, poems, books, novels, mysteries, newspaper articles, film songs, advertisements, architectural styles, comic books, apocryphal stories and paintings inspired by this city. Through them, Prakash is able to distill an imagining of Mumbai that is more real than a straightforward history, simply because it is told by so many different voices.

Mumbai’s story, as it unfolds in Prakash’s narrative, is an absorbing one, with varied sources: newspapers and pamphlets, books, paintings, interviews and songs, lawsuits and art. To each set of texts, Prakash brings his unique eye. With the entertaining Marathi writer Govind Narayan Madgavkar (Mumbaiche Varnan) or the Parsi writer Sir Dinshaw Wacha (Shells from the Sands of Bombay) or the British police commissioner S M Edwardes (ethnographic sketches for The Times of India), Prakash is interested in the visual ‘reading of the city’. To Madgavkar and Wacha, the ‘kaleidoscopic but orderly’ cosmopolitanism of Bombay is riveting. Edwardes is captivated by the colourful, exotic ‘Indian’ life that unfolds just outside of the British quarter. Like his contemporaries, he too is caught up in the ‘image of otherness’ that the city’s sights offer.

There are nuggets aplenty – you’ll never look at art deco or the Marine Drive in the same way again, and suddenly, street names develop a back-story. Some of our wealthiest philanthropists, for instance, were opium traders (like Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the Wadias, the Cowasjis and Motichund Aminchund). There were committed professionals as well, like Dr A G Viegas, who diagnosed Bombay’s first case of bubonic plague. Confidence tricks and murder were a Bombay thing back then as well, as seen in Naoroji Dumasia’s crime books – one of which was based on the cases of Sardar Mir Abdul Ali, a real police detective.

The startling thing about Mumbai Fables is its sheer scope. Here you will find the story of the film studios and the secular seeds of the film industry; the rise and fall of the mill politics; the thrilling story of the Nanavati murder case and how the Blitz reported it; and unsettling accounts of the Babri-Masjid riots and the bomb blasts. Hindi film songs and Marathi Dalit poetry feature here, as do Meera Devidayal’s Mumbai-taxi-inspired paintings, the wonderful Hindi comic/graphic novel Doga, cartoons from Marathi newspapers, and the pulsating life and commerce of Dharavi. Like the creators of these texts, Prakash is an outsider and an admirer, but his prose is coloured with a sense of the beauty of this city – of its unique, alluring cosmopolitanism. Reading …Fables, you can understand what it was that drew everyone from the Konkani mill-worker to the Urdu poet here.

Prakash writes of the processes that shaped the city’s geography to accommodate human greed and industrial pressures, often at the cost of common sense. He discusses the various attempts made to ‘plan’ Mumbai, to reclaim land and ‘colonise nature’. Almost all of those attempts were either inspired or marred by greedy collusions between governments and corporates. This greed has overpowered vision, and ‘people’s needs’ have been used as an excuse to grab land or to build haphazardly.

Interestingly, the first people to think of reclaiming land from the sea were the Portuguese, but the process began only when the East India Company took over. Started in 1784, reclamations had, by 1872, added four million square yards to Bombay. Girangaon or the ‘Village of Mills’ sprouted up to meet the international demand for cotton. Unhygienic conditions and a particularly heavy monsoon led to the bubonic plague epidemic of 1896-97. The disregard for public good was of course a sign of colonial times, but seen in today’s context, it seems eerily familiar.

Prakash chronicles all of this with a novel-like quality. He describes the various blunders around the Backbay reclamation project and a campaign against it by the nationalist lawyer Khurshed Framji Nariman (supported by the Bombay Chronicle, which was edited by an anti-colonial Irishman, B G Horniman). Nariman took up cause against the mosquito-breeding ‘grand mess’ that the project had become, was sued by the British government, and went on to completely trounce them. The project was reinstated years later, and, in a terribly ironic gesture, a part of the area was named after him. Prakash details how thoughtful planners like Charles Correa and honest bureaucrats like J B D’Souza have met with similar obstacles later.

Which is not to say that Mumbai Fables does not have its flaws. While the chapter on films is probably the best in the book, the one on Russi Karanjia and the Nanavati case is a bit weak. Also Prakash tends to slip into parenthetical discussions, which make for a turgid read. The book takes time to climb into your head and explode there – the beginning, for instance, is dull, but stick with it, because explode it does!

This is an important book, especially today, when we are in the danger of not just repeating history, but bludgeoning ourselves on the head with it. The city’s loss of open, green spaces, as well as the Mumbai University chancellor’s dismissal of a book based on the demands of a politician’s young son, are indicative of the fact that we need to read this book, to revisit history and learn from it, so that we don’t look like complete fools a hundred years from now.

Mumbai Fables
Gyan Prakash
HarperCollins Publishers India
Rs 599
396 pp

(This was originally written for the Sunday DNA and can be viewed here: http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/review_book-review-mumbai-fables_1453744)

Monday, August 02, 2010

kerala kathas

in kerala, chasing the red rain and silent scientists, the male vachharajani tiredly reached trivandrum, where the kind hari, sound recordist, took him to a remaindered books stall, where he found these gems.

, a french book and disc (a small LP) with really sweet illustrations. it was an advt for green peas, using this fella and a slogan that went: "on a toujours besoin de petits pois chez soi" or in this girl detective's high-school french - one always needs a little peas at home. and please feel free to correct me if i'm wrong.
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A Day With Wilbur Robinson
by William Joyce, which, according to wikipedia 'follows the story of a boy (13 years old) who visits an unusual family and their home. While spending the day in the Robinson household, Wilbur's best friend joins in the search for Grandfather Robinson's missing false teeth and meets one wacky relative after another'. disney made a film based on it called meet the robinsons

and then the jewel of the lot, richard erdoes's (1912-2008) peddlers and vendors of the world. which is a part of the three-book series that this anthropologist-cum-illustrator (i guess in the pre-internet world, people had the time to explore all of their interests!) had done. the other two are: musicians of the world and (of all things) policemen of the world. it's all very crisp and mid-century modernist + western in style and execution. quite incorrect, but so so so delightful. here are some pics from the books. (for some reason blogger's mangling my captions - so i removed them.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Review of Serious Men by Manu Joseph

Ayyan Mani, a Tamil Dalit, lives in Mumbai’s BDD chawl. His life is quite meshed with that of his neighbours, and yet, stands a bit apart, in that he dares to think beyond his grim circumstances. Working in the Institute of Theory and Research as PA to its Director, the formidable Arvind Acharya, Ayyan uses his power to make people wait, read confidential letters, listen to private phone calls, and delightfully, to subvert the thought-for-the-day once a week.

A conflict is brewing between Acharya and Jana Nambodri, the Deputy Director. To Ayyan, it is the War of the Brahmins, an event he longs to witness. An astrobiologist, Oparna Goshmaulik, enters the situation somewhere in the middle of all this. The playing out of academic politics takes an ugly hue, weaving its way around sexual politics and Ayyan’s private drama of creating a myth around his child.

Joseph’s plot is a tale that breathes around us. It is a story that needs the parallel realities of Mumbai to flower. His treatment of it, however, sometimes becomes clichéd and tedious, as in the drawing out of his main characters. The less important people – Jana, Ayyan’s wife Oja, his son Adi and Acharya’s wife Lavanya – are drawn with a delicate precision. The descriptions make you sit up, recognizing this human charade here and that foible there. While Ayyan, Acharya and Oparna populate long passages, somehow, their actions seem poorly etched and unconvincing. Acharya, the academic who falls for Oparna, definitely needed more skilful rendering.

Oparna’s character is almost cruelly drawn. She goes from a restrained yet stunning scientist, to a lovelorn seductress and finally, a vengeful saboteur who spills the beans on herself conveniently. Just in time to aid the plot, she disappears. Though Acharya sleeps with her for a fortnight and then tamely goes back to the silence of his marriage, he emerges as the idealist, whose job and personal life fall back in place nicely.

Joseph’s is a male novel, interested in the interior landscapes of men – whether poor or rich, Brahmin or Dalit, scientist or peon. How everyone reacts to Oparna in the Institute that has next to no women, leave alone attractive ones, is keenly observed. This focus on a male internal landscape is not problematic in itself. Many novels have engaged with the landscape of women’s worlds and still worked. Here, however, the plot suffers for it. You could perhaps accept Lavanya’s prompt forgiving of her husband; what you don’t feel convinced by is Oparna’s startling volte face.

The language ranges from tart, funny observations and brilliant single-stroke descriptions (the silver-haired Jana ‘had this affliction to be with the youth’) to awkward, embarrassing turns-of-phrase (like ‘the unmistakable insanity of formidable women who long to crumble’ or when looking at the young mothers outside his son’s school and their clothes, Ayyan observes that ‘their asymmetric panty-lines were like birds in the sky drawn by a careless cartoonist’). That is when you are not skipping pages of pointless prose. Annoyingly, the authorial voice keeps popping in disruptively. Ayyan, an intellectual and a political being, refuses to convert to Christianity and rejects Hinduism. His disdain is discussed economically, often humorously. He has opinions on everything, and sometimes, you suspect they are Joseph’s.

Read Serious Men because it explores the many small politics around us – between the smart man in a chawl and the more laidback; between the parents of the poor-but-brilliant boy in school and the more prosperous ones; between husband, wife and the rather unfortunate child. There are stories here which need to be told – that Joseph drags them all into his first book is perhaps a mark of a writerly courage which stands on the edge of bravado.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the DNA of Sunday, July 11, 2010

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Interview with Philip Pullman!!

For many days in April, I walked on a cloud of purplish-pink satin. The DNA had asked me to interview Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, and positively one of my favourite-est writers. As I told Amit, for just a few moments in time and space, he would be reading my words. Amit had wanted to call our first-born Lyra, since we had n when we were fresh from reading all three books. I would have too, except somehow, Lyra Vachharajani didn't quite do it for me.
The DNA had to chop the questions and answers for space, so here, peoples, is the whole truth!

In 1995, a year before Harry Potter flew in on his broom, a fantasy novel by Philip Pullman made a quiet yet significant entry. Northern Lights, the first part of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, tells the story of two children who meet across parallel universes and end up subverting the Church’s authority in a breathlessly exciting journey across seas, skies and worlds. Darker and less gimmicky than J K Rowling’s Potter story, the Trilogy sold 15 million copies, earned critical acclaim, won the coveted Whitbread Book Award and, inevitably, attracted moral censure.

With a wide range of influences like John Milton, William Blake, Heinrich von Kleist, the King James Bible and comic books, Pullman has written around 20 very successful books including plays, fairytales, and novels for the young. In a Pullman book – whatever its scope or size – the story is always king. Over email he tells Anita Vachharajani about his latest book, the allure of stories, and his advice to book-burning fundamentalists everywhere.

The books in the Dark Materials trilogy were filled with a longing for individual freedom within a humane, good and principled universe. There is also a robust rejection of authority. I feel that The Good Man Jesus… takes this theme further. Jesus is the more truly human, the more worshipful brother; while Christ has a larger vision for an organized religion. Could you comment on this?
In one way, the two brothers represent two of the types of authority described by the sociologist Max Weber. Jesus is the embodiment of charismatic leadership, which is based on the domination of the leader by means of miracles, magical powers, prophecy, and so on. Christ is the embodiment of a later sort of leadership: not possessing any sort of charismatic gifts himself, he envisages a church based on the authority of tradition. The progression from one to the other is typical of the way many organisations develop.

For someone who is reportedly an atheist, you take religion very seriously ­ especially when you are being critical of it. Allusions to the Bible, prayers and hymns permeate your work and your discussions. Was religion a very significant part of your childhood?
Yes, very much so. Not in an oppressive way - simply that I grew up in the household of my grandfather, who was a clergyman in the Church of England. I went to church every Sunday, I absorbed the stories, I loved the language of the liturgy and the King James Bible. It's a large part of what made me.

You were a teacher during the ’70s. Did interacting directly with children influence your storytelling and your craft as a writer?
I was a teacher before we had such a thing as the National Curriculum in England. We had a great deal more freedom in those days, and I thought it would be a good idea to tell the children (I was teaching 11-13 year olds) some of the stories of the Greek myths - simply because they were wonderful stories, and I couldn’t see that they would ever hear them otherwise. So I did that, and I also wrote a play to be performed at the end of every Christmas term. The experience of these things played a big part in my apprenticeship, so to speak. As far as the plays were concerned, I had to entertain a mixed audience - both the children and their parents. The one thing I didn't want to do was have a bit of silly slapstick for the children, and then a bit of clever word-play for the adults, for example. Absolutely not! So I had to make up a story that would make them all laugh for the same reasons, or make them all feel the same suspense, or move them all in the same way. To take them all seriously as members of an audience.

You once said in an interview with Robert Butler that ‘your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family’. Your characters are often adolescents ­ caught in that awkward space between childhood and a more adult awareness of the world. As a writer, why does this point in a character’s life interest you so much?
I remember my own adolescence, both for its hideous embarrassments and for the sense of thrilling intellectual adventure. It is a very important time of transition for everyone - transition from one form of thinking to another, as much as anything else. We develop a sense of where we are intellectually, which is not always the same as where we find ourselves dwelling. In my case, I discovered a passionate devotion to the arts in myself, whereas my family that cared for them not at all. Perhaps one day I shall write my memoirs...

Your books have universal appeal – adults and kids enjoy them. What do you think draws so many adult readers to your books?

One thing, definitely, is the experience I describe in 3 above. Because I take the story seriously myself, it tends to be the sort of story that adults can take seriously. And it touches young people at the point in their lives when they are going through the experiences that will make them into adults, and they can see that I'm talking to them without patronising them. At least I hope so!

Who would you say are the greatest influences on your work as a writer and a storyteller?
I would say that the greatest influences must have been all the great stories that I've read, and the enjoyment I've derived from them. When you become interested in stories and how they work, your enjoyment is doubled. There is never an end to the delight one can derive from stories.

How do you react to fundamentalists and people who fear that reading your books would corrupt their children?
If I were to offer such people a word of sincere advice, it would be this: don't make such a fuss. By making a fuss about this or that book, you only increase your children's desire to read it secretly. Haven't you realized that? My advice would be - ignore it completely. Regard it as beneath your notice. Don't say a word about it. The more you call for such books to be banned, the more excitement about them you stir up. Haven't you learned that

Some of your writing can be viewed as being anti-Church. Yet your novels have an avowedly moral universe ­ a world where humanistic values triumph. How has the British religious establishment reacted to this?
For the most part, with a mature and unworried indifference.

You said on your website that ‘I thought it would be hard to find an audience for this story [the His Dark Materials trilogy]’. Could you tell us a bit about why you thought the series wouldn’t find an audience and what happened when the books actually went out into the world?
I hoped it might reach the sort of audience my previous books had found, which is to say the small audience of children and adults (teachers and librarians) who are interested in reading books labelled ‘children’s books’. And that was exactly what happened, at first. But little by little children must have been urging their parents to read it, because I noticed that audiences at the events I did were getting older and larger. By the time 'The Amber Spyglass' came out, there were as many adults reading me as children. And of course I was very gratified by that; it was a reward for the apprenticeship in telling stories that I'd gone through as a teacher.

You’ve probably been asked this question many times before, but I have to know: the idea of a daemon in the His Dark Materials trilogy ­ a living animal which represents a person’s character and always accompanies him or her ­ is striking and unique. Where did it come from? How did you decide that a child’s ever-changing daemon would freeze when she moved into adulthood? Finally, if you had a daemon, what would it be?

The idea of the daemon didn't come to me until I'd tried to write the first chapter many times, and each time been foiled. It just wasn't working. When I discovered that Lyra had a daemon, the story became much easier to tell.
Soon it was obvious that the whole story would turn on the nature of the daemon, on the moment when it settled, on the very difference between adults and children; and I couldn't imagine how I had ever thought I could write the story without daemons.

Oh, and my daemon is a raven - or a jackdaw, or a magpie: one of those birds that steal bright glittering things.

The Trilogy has many unforgettable characterizations ­ Lyra Belacqua, Serafina Pekkala the witch, Iorek Byrnison the bear, to name just a few. There are parallel universes ­ our own and many others, one seemingly Victorian world (where Zeppelins fly) ­ and creations like the Subtle Knife and the alethiometer. How did you cope with the challenges of this vast canvas? Was it tough living with so many vibrant characters in your head?

Actually, it was a lot easier than writing a short story. That's the real challenge. Remembering the various characters wasn't hard in the least: they were all so vivid to me that I couldn't have forgotten them even if I'd wanted to. And working on a vast canvas makes it easy to solve a narrative problem by inventing a whole new world ... As I say, writing a short story is much harder than that.

From the rich joyfulness and texture of fantasy to The Good Man Jesus… which has the tight economy of a fable. How challenging was it to make the transition from a complex and layered style to one that is far more spare?
It was very interesting. I thought I'd try to do without landscape, and weather, and imagery. The only imagery in Jesus is when one of the characters uses a simile or a metaphor. The narrator eschews such devices. Similarly, there is hardly any description, whether of landscape or of characters. As for weather, the only weather in the gospels is a storm; but I thought I could do without that too. I was trying to get down to the bare bones of story, where there are events and nothing else. Neutral, uninflected storytelling.

Your re-telling of fairy tales like Puss in Boots and Aladdin offer a layered version of old favourites. What draws you to re-visit these classic stories?
Simply the fact that they are wonderful shapes to handle. As a jazz musician enjoys the sequence of chords in this or that tune, so I enjoy the sequence of events in a classic fairy tale and I love playing variations over it.

In Count Karlstein there is a lovely interplay between text and words ­ the book jumps in and out of comic-book-style drawings. How important do you think the visual element is in a book for young children?
Picture-books are profoundly important in helping children not only to read but to acquire a visual language as well. I think we should spend much more time than we do in teaching children to draw. Nothing helps you see something so well as drawing it; nothing gives you so acute a visual sense.
In this world where so much information is delivered to us in graphic images, it is vitally important to have a way of talking about and analyzing these forms of communication.

Your drawings appear at the start of each chapter in the Dark Materials trilogy. They are melancholic, spare and arresting. How did you end up drawing for the books? Do you plan to draw a children¹s book and write it as well as in the future?
The publisher wanted a symbol of some kind at the start of each chapter, and I thought I could do better than that and draw a picture. He was very sceptical until I produced three or four drawings to show that I could do it. As for a picture book, I can do certain things but not others. To tell a story in pictures you need faces, and faces are very hard to do.

So for the moment I shall hold back from trying a picture book!

A shorter version of this interview appeared in the DNA of Sunday, April 9, 2010. You can read it here: http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/interview_my-sincere-advice-to-religious-fanatics-ignore-the-book_1380767

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Think of it as work

A terrible, terrible writer's block has happened. It’s not your normal walnut-sized block, which you can prod and push with your finger and work around. Usually, at least my instinct to write puerile rubbish is readily available, and no walnut-sized critters can stop that. Nonsense, no-sense, and embarrassing pap – it’s there. On tap. Pours out at will, and then I can whittle and friends and Amit can edit and ‘suggest changes’ till a work of at least some honesty comes out. This time, there's no go. This particular block is – at my estimation – about 18 feet high and 12 feet wide. It’s slate-grey and hard and made up of tough materials like laziness and a good measure of greyhazystuff - a material which fills my mind with moss-like nothingness. It has not been spotted in a long time, but our records show that it has been known to exist.

Logically, this would be the time to take a tiny break. But because deadlines exist in a writer’s world just as they do elsewhere in civilized society, one feels guilty. And that’s when one begins to think of all forms of frittery as Work – as in, this Work will inspire me to get back to real work type of 'work'. Want to read a P D James? Well, I am a writer. So reading = work? Want to chat with a friend instead of struggling against the dark block? Hell-llo, I am a stressed out, work-from-home mom, surely talking to a friend, saving myself a therapist's fee and clearing my head for Writerly Thoughts is helpful? Want to spend my day looking at Doonesbury, Berke Breathed, Wondermark and the Oatmeal? Now isn't that a gesture of solidarity with these masters of sarcasm and irony, and isn’t reading good writing a useful thing in itself? Want to spend a day gazing at people's narcissistic outpourings on fb? Come now, the ability to laugh at human folly is No. 1 important quality in writers. Yes? Want to cheat on diet a bit and eat rubbish? Two threptin biscuits with a giant mug of tea instead of a fruit – surely, eating badly is a writer’s right? Hey, the world is full of idea-triggers. Who knows where my next one will come from?

As a writer, you’re supposed to dip your pen in the inkwell of life (finally, a metaphor – even a cheap one – remember what I said about rubbish on tap?). So practically anything can be Thought of as Work. Even – and especially – wasting time on the net, thinking up clever fb posts, reading recipes, chatting online and writing a blog post after so long (which, compared to fb status msgs, seems like real literature). Into this category fall expensive holidays (communing with nature and the swimming pool?) or shopping (people watching?) and sitting on the sofa eating chips, watching Seinfeld.

A writer's work should – ideally – be all about answering email interviews, helping design the book's cover, selecting and rejecting artworks with a sweet, condescending smile, signing royalty receipts and 10-page contracts, attending book readings, being gazed at worshipfully and posing for pictures which are a mix of youthful innocence + the self-assurance of age. What is this nonsense about writing for three-hours-a-day, I say. That is so frickin' uncool - definitely not what I paid my entrance fee to the mediocre-and-underpaid-writers-club for.

Monday, March 15, 2010

We'll miss you, Vinda!

Vinda Karandikar, one of the liveliest and most radical of Marathi poets, passed away yesterday. At 92, he had no doubt led a full life... I encountered his Pishi Mavshi or Aunty Witch poems and other nonsense when I was translating for The Tenth Rasa: The Penguin Book of Indian Nonsense Verse. The poems saw me thru a fairly dull pregnancy and everyone on board was great fun to work with.
But Vinda's genius, with its sharp, prickly images and its completely fantastic flights, has stayed with me for the longest time... I missed being taught by him at uni, but am grateful to Mike for having given me the opportunity to translate this one, among others...

Pishi Mavshi's Backyard
(Orig title: Pishi Mavshiche Parasu)

The cat digs up the backyard soil;
Pishi Mavshi sows the seeds.
They will grow as tall as her
By morning-time when darkness flees.

If the plants are taller than Pishi
Or seem shorter by a fraction,
Pishi Mavshi’ll wring their necks and
Dance deliriously to distraction.

On the jackfruit tree of Pishi
Mangoes grow in season and out
On the mangoes, guavas grow and
Banana trees on them soon sprout.

When banana bunches appear
Pishi kicks the troubled tree;
The tree starts trembling terribly and
Out pop saplings one, two, three!

The cat digs up the backyard soil,
And people say that they have seen
At high noon Pishi from a skull
Pour water on her garden green.

I wish someone would make this into a picture book. What drawings it would have! I love the image of Pishi shaking the plants' by their necks. It had n in splits too. There are a few more - funny, witty, full of mad wordplay. But Pishi with her reluctance to be liked or understood, with her profound sense of drama and trembling rage, is simply my favourite poem-person!

Here's Mike, who met Vinda while editing the book...

From The Tenth Rasa - The Penguin Book of Indian Nonsense Verse, Edited by Micheal Heyman, Anushka Ravishankar and Sumanyu S., Published by Penguin, © Penguin and Anita Vachharajani

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

patni prakop or the enraged wife - with reason too!

Obviously, shiney ahuja is a man behind his times... or maybe salaciousness really is the oldest sin! a series of postcards from 1910. captions were helpfully in gujarati, marathi and english!

'tarun daasi' or 'the young maid servant'

'pratham darshan' or 'at first sight'

'aalingan' or 'how sweet you are!'

'chup! maari stri, maari stri! / maajhi baayko! maajhi baayko!' or 'shh! my wife, my wife!'
notice the floury prints on his coat. remember them.

'hey kaay?' or 'what is this?' remember the floury prints?

'patni prakop' or 'wife enraged'

'khota bachaav' or 'false defense' see the spilt flour on the maid's legs?

'kaadi muki' or 'rajaa dili' / 'dismissed!'

'mandharni' or 'manamanu' / 'reconciliation at last!'

'navi daasi' / 'the new servant!'