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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The bee-ginning of a love story

There were myriad emotions running through her as she decided to take a long walk down the valley. Anger dominated them all, leaving her drained and resentful. On an impulse, she entered the Bee-yard, hoping that the beekeeper would let her channel this destructive streak.
He knew she was coming before he spotted her. A primal instinct drove his eyes towards her. She seemed agitated, but all he could notice was her blinding aura.He must have looked stupid in his standstill position with bees swarming all around him.

She approached him, and stared. He saw her lips forming four musical words.
“You have beautiful eyes!”
He felt the clouds parting, washing him in sun rays. He smiled as he answered,
“I know. After all, beauty lies in the eyes of the bee-holder.”

She took up a stick and started beating the hives, all the while looking into his mesmerising eyes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro

A documentation of the life of a patriotic artist during pre- and post- World War II Japan through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.

Simple, Serious


No profanity

Favorite Quote:
“One supposes all groups of pupils tend to have a leader figure – someone whose abilities the teacher singles out as an example for the others to follow. And it is this pupil by virtue of his having strongest grasp of his teachers ideas, who will tend to function as the main interpreter of those ideas to the less experienced or the less gifted pupils. But by the same token, it is this same leading pupil who is most likely to see the shortcomings in the teachers work, or else develop views of his own divergent from those of the teacher. In theory, of course, a good teacher should accept this tendency- indeed welcome it as a sign that he has brought his pupil to a point of maturity. In practice, however, the emotions involved can be qute complicated. Sometimes when someone has nurtured a pupil long and hard, it is difficult to see any such maturing of talent other than treachery and some regrettable situations are apt to arise”

“The finest, most fragile beauty an artist can hope to capture drifts within those pleasure houses in the dark”.

From a writer’s point of view, writing in first person can have serious drawbacks. While it helps bring the reader closer to the book, it also risks monotony, since the writer cannot delve deeper into other characters. So, a typical first-person narration has enough twists and turns to keep the reader riveted to the central character themselves.
Ishiguro on the other hand, tries nothing of that sort in this book. On the contrary, except for a couple of memories, the story of Masuji Ono is fairly straightforward, at least in the beginning. However, on reading it through, the reader realises that he is dealing with an unreliable narrator, which suddenly makes the straightforward story develop many more layers, most of them unknown and assumed.
The floating world, for an artist in the early twenties, meant a nigh-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink, which formed the backdrop of all their paintings.
After reading the book though, one cannot help but wonder if the title was also used to show an artists’ life in the 6 years of war, which marked a transient stage in Japan in terms of ideologies, beliefs and leadership.

In October 1948, Japan is still trying to come to terms with the massive damage, physical and mental, the war had created. That made it difficult for Ono to find a suitable groom for his second daughter Noriko. She had become caustic after one of the marriage talks fell through in 1947. Ono believed that she and his elder daughter Setsuko thought him to be the cause of it, which was confirmed when the latter asks him to take “precautionary steps” to ensure that the talks went smoothly.
While Ono initially believed it could be because of the difference in status, he slowly began revisiting his former colleagues to ensure that they would maintain a high opinion of him in case of any investigations. The story thus develops, through the negotiations and the daughters’ insinuations in the present, and through his memories of the past.

Ono’s father was against his becoming an artist, and believed that, as predicted by a wandering priest, he had a weak streak and a tendency towards deceit and slothfulness. Though he does not stand up to his father then, he was very passionate about his interest and decided to leave home to pursue it. After seven years of working in a firm where quantity and speed were more important than quality work, he joined the patronage of a famous painter and printmaker Seiji Moriyama (Mori-San).
Seven years into the patronage, he meets Matsuda, who influences him to use his art for a greater cause, and for inspiring the country to move forward. By constant provocation, Matsuda showed Ono how the country was being run by greedy politicians and businessmen, and the voice of Imperial Majesty of Japan was getting drowned. So, from painting the images from the pleasure world, Ono started working on political artworks to convey stronger messages, much to the disliking of his master, Mori-san, and he was made to leave.
The late twenties and early thirties of Ono’s life have not been documented, but we can make out that he had become very successful and rose to influence. With the commencement of war, Ono joined the State government as an artist and the member of the cultural committee, and also, as the official advisor to the office of unpatriotic activities.

By the end of the war, the remaining younger generation was bitter towards the older one for supporting the Imperial Majesty, and for “leading them astray”. Some of the remaining men started committing suicide or Hara-Kiri as an apology for their actions. When he realised that his second daughter Noriko’s current proposal could also be in danger because of his past, he admitted his mistake to the groom’s family, saying that he had believed he was acting in good faith. The proposal then goes off smoothly.
However, the simple transition from the present to the past through reminiscence had been marked with various lapses in Ono’s memory. When Setsuko mentioned that she had never asked him to take precautionary measures, and that Ono was never a man of influence, we start questioning Ono’s narrative. He is never completely sure of his conversation with others, leading us to question his lucidity. His faith in his high stature and position keeps increasing exponentially with his memories, until Setsuko mentions (or is it remind?) that he was just an artist and nothing more.

The flow is simple and effortless. To an extent, the erratic jump between the present and the various pasts serves to keep the story interesting. However, “if” there is a puzzle to be solved here, I am yet to solve it. Taken at face value, the book shows how tremulous the post-war Japan society had been, and how the patriotic population were suddenly termed traitors. According to Ono:

“There is surely no shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to accept them.”

The book may, on a parallel track, be showing how the new Japan is developing – americanized, democratic and with real American idols like Indiana Jones and Popeye. The reader can sense the disgruntled tone of the author here, and can hazard a guess that the author was trying to vindicate the older generation for what they had done.

In a typical Ishuguro style, this book is simple and clean. However, it is not memorable in terms of plot, writing style or the characterisations. While it provides an interesting light on the society of Japan in the late 40s and early 50s, it is neither a light read nor an enlightening one.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Death Wish

Franklee was on a run. Known as the most nimble deer in the jungle, he still feared the ferocious lioness. Having escaped her once already, he was sure he was not going to be lucky this time.
Just then he reached a turbulent river. For a split second, it reminded him of the story of the three brothers, who had a similar predicament:

One of them created a bridge through his wand, and they started crossing it. Then, death appeared. He was angry that he had lost his victims, but appeared to congratulate them, and granted them each a wish. The Eldest one asked for an unconquerable wand and the middle one asked for a resurrection stone, while the youngest brother asked for a cloak of invisibility to escape death. Needless to say, the elder two brothers finally died because of these wishes, while the youngest one led a happy trouble-free life.

Scarcely had Franklee done recalling the story, that Death appeared before him.
"You have me in front and the lioness behind you. Death seems to be certain. However, I will grant you a wish, like I did for the brothers. What do you want?"
Franklee, in his haste, replied, " Please sir, can you build a dam so that I can cross this godforsaken river?"
Death retorted, "Franklee my deer, I don't give a dam.".
As Franklee watched him chuckle at his own cleverness, the lioness had pounced up on him.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Stumbling in the canine world

I share a very shaky bond with dogs and that’s putting it mildly. It started when I was 7 and was on my way to the singing class. I heard a couple of dogs barking behind me. So, I tried to walk slowly before breaking into a run in a side lane. That turned out to be a mistake, as the lane was a hibernating space for three more dogs. They woke up. They growled. I ran. I looked back, and all the five dogs were looking amused, rooted to their original spots.

Nineteen years later, I am stronger and I don’t run. But I can’t pat them either. I tried it with one, and his hackles rose. I can bring it out in them I suppose.
But I can’t resist their eyes. I mean, all dogs look sad! So, I do the little things, like bad-mouthing or blogging about people who are mean to dogs, and giving them food (from a distance of course) when they look really starved. Smiling at them never seems to work, so I have given it up for now.

Which brings me to the subject of the post. One morning, while rushing from the andheri station to the auto stand, I saw a beautiful cream-colored dog. He didn’t look like a stray, but he seemed to be dying. He was lying in the middle of this crowd, and could barely keep his eyes open. I kept staring at him. He didn't stare back. I sat down. He didn’t move. I asked him, my voice shaking, “Enna da achu?” (What happened?). There was no reaction. I went to my usual vada-pav place, got an extra pav, and immediately went back. By then, a small crowd had gathered around us. I was on the verge of tears when I offered him the pav and he didn’t take it up. So I nudged it closer and touched his nose.

He woke up with a start.
Apparently, he was sleeping. He didn’t like waking up, and he definitely wasn’t hungry. I tried to walk away as quickly as possible (only the 7-year old me would run).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mother Pious Lady - Santhosh Desai

A collection of Desai's take on the common mannerisms of a middle-class Indian and the country at large.

Simple, Witty


Favorite Quote:
(M S Dhoni) exemplifies an attitude that small town India seems to possess in plenty – The lack of fear of failure.
We never travel alone – we travel with our entire way of life and sometimes that has trouble fitting into an airline cabin.

I haven’t read Santosh Desai’s column in TOI. That resulted in my approaching the book with minimal expectations, and was pleasantly surprised at its contents. Sadly enough, the high expectations developed mid-way through the book fell woefully short by the end. To be fair, the book is as interesting, unique and colourful as its cover.
The chapters are divided into three sections – Where do we come from, new adventures in modernity and dilemmas of change, thus moving progressively to the bigger picture. Each chapter has, on an average, 10 topics, which are about 1-2 pages long. The author thus cleverly ensured that even if the reader strayed, he can pick it up from where he left off.
If you are a typical middle-class Indian who travelled by trains, watched doordarshan, travelled with family in scooters, played antakshari and enjoyed the street food, the book will be a catalogue of all these happy memories. Apart from making you nostalgic, Desai also adds his own reasoning to these incidents, which are equally a revelation and a spoiler. As an example of the latter, at the end of the chapter describing the civilised middle crease in the trousers, Desai concludes by saying:

When we crease our shirts and comb our hair, we impose on ourselves a discipline; we reaffirm that we belong to a group and that we abide by its rule. By doing so, we hope that the system will in turn abide by us. This, of course, does not always happen, but as long as we believe, hope lives.

While the sentence formation here is beautiful, I find it overstretching. In my case, the central crease is courtesy the local iron-wallah, and I usually don’t notice it. My pants, creased or otherwise, do not reflect my thoughts or hopes from the society. All the chapters in the first section draw similar parallels between what we did and what we expect, and to be fair, Desai hits the mark most of the times. It is his misses that stand out.
Section two becomes an amalgamation of the contrasting tones of section one and three. The chapters in this part focuses mainly on modern India, and youth Icons (from Rakhi Sawant and Shah Rukh Khan to MS Dhoni). However, where Desai was a passive intelligent narrator and observer in the first section, with larger issues in hand (media and politics mainly), he becomes either questioning or preachy. The passiveness and the objectivity were lost in his quest for being witty and sarcastic. For example, his take on Indian slums ends thus:

The slum is not the ‘other’ India and Dharavi is not an aberration. It is both a condemnation and a celebration of who we are. We need to own it, change it, admire it and hate it. We don’t need to ignore it. And if some Western director makes a film about it, we don’t need to fear it.

If Desai wanted to use this book as a medium to show his analytical prowess and reasoning power, he has succeeded. But I wish he had stopped when he was ahead, and not joined the hoard of gasbags who think that by raising the “right questions” and by vague & sage advices, the country will improve.

Its difficult to give a final verdict for this book. Parts of it are brilliant, and some are downright mediocre. However, it is ideal for a 15-minute-read-every-night before sleeping.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why I hate Fair & Lovely ads

My neutral-feminism feelings have nothing to do with it. When a close family friend asked, “How did you land such a fair and handsome husband when you are dark?” for example, I did not think of blaming the ads for moulding his thinking. Again, when I got all the jobs I have interviewed for, I did not think of showing a finger to them either.
No, my extreme feelings are due to the state of my wedding album. Like all Indian girls, I was garishly dressed for the reception, and was very uncomfortable in all the bling and make-up. I was therefore surprised to see that the photos looked even worse, and bore no resemblance to my brownish-pink colour. On asking the photographer, it turned out that he had added a yellow filter to “make me look fairer and minimise the color difference between me and my husband”.

His one well-meaning (?) act ensured that I haven’t looked at the album more than once, and I look at the floor while crossing the framed-photos-covered hall.

So, yes I do hate these ads immensely - not for wanting to make darker-prettier girls inferior, but for the quality of thoughts they send out to common households and enthusiastic photographers.


Coffee is bad for me,
that I know for sure.
But, however hard my resolve,
I cannot have less than four.

First cup to wake me up,
And second to sustain it,
Third cup to pass the day,
And fourth to seal it.

I did try to give it up,
By having milk and juice.
But with a crying baby in hand,
A headache is NOT good news.

So I have relapsed to my old ways,
With four cups every day.
But over time, I will develop the will
To get this out of my way.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sarcasm vs. Niceties

Everyone who knows me is aware (and scared) of my confrontational attitude, especially when I am super-angry. That trait kicks in especially with strangers who are callously throwing thrash or spitting on the road.
So, when I saw a woman in a virar-churchgate local throwing the spinach branches out of the window (bunches of them!), I was trying to think of the most offensive comeback possible. Since that was taking time, I was just contending myself by giving her killer looks, when a 16-something girl sitting next to me spoke up.
"Aunty ji, don't throw it outside. Here put it in this plastic bag. I will throw it later."
The lady just smiled and took the offer up.

That incident taught me many important lessons. It is not necessary, or indeed useful, to be confrontational. I don't think the bottle throwing lady would have learnt anything by my sarcasm. However, this spinach-branch throwing lady will, in all probability, carry a plastic bag the next time. Being nice sometimes conveys a stronger message than being sarcastic.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

From a loser's perspective

After singing a lot of out-of-tune old hindi songs, he finally seemed to be crumbling in. The eyes drooped, the shoulders slacked and the legs relaxed. I had been oscillating with him to and fro like a pendulum, hoping for this much desired (albeit late) effect.

Suddenly, the phone rings. The eyes open slowly. I pat him nervously, hoping the minor distraction doesn’t cause my 1-hour of effort to go waste. He smiles, closes his eyes and starts sucking his thumb. Phew.

“DIDI, PHONE BAJ RAHA HAI” – My maid screams. I virtually tear my hair apart as I watch my almost-4-month old son’s head pop up.

“NEEND NAHI AA RAHI HAI?” She then asks him innocently, while I shoot daggers at her.

As he gives her his now-famous lopsided smile, I wonder if he knows that, in my quest for control, he wins every single time.


(2 hours Later)

After singing a lot of out-of-tune old hindi songs, he finally seemed to be crumbling in. The eyes drooped, the shoulders slacked and the legs relaxed. I had been oscillating with him to and fro like a pendulum, hoping for this much desired (albeit late) effect.

Then he starts hiccoughing. And he gives me that lopsided grin again.

Well played son, well played.