Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Those Bundles of Papyrus

Recently, I read an intriguing comment on this blog, asking me what my favorite books were.  It has been a while since I have thought about that question.

All my life, I have read a lot of books. I have liked some, but never hated any. Books are the fruits of love and labor, and like you don't scorn someone Else's child, you don't scorn their books either. However, the word "favorite" conjures up a completely different set of emotions. The ones, that come from being awake all night.

I have always divided my books into the ones that can keep me completely oblivious of the need to sleep at night -- and, the ones that don't. One can understand the need to complete the journey, if a voluminous account of an arctic adventure on a sledge through a blizzard, is given in a larger number of pages, than a single night allows to complete. But, the ones that used to keep me awake, were always short stories. Somerset Maugham had a knack for spinning a web around characters, living in the most nondescript islands in the pacific, and keeping me awake till I would find out their fates. One story always ended into another, but the night never did. It was much later, that I got somewhat tired of his stories -- his times suddenly seemed remote, so remote, that I couldn't stretch and touch the characters any more.

The writings of Sir Vidiadhar, have always appealed to me. In spite of the times when he referred to me, and a countless number of my compatriots, as denizens of a land of darkness. I forgave him, for he makes me see the things, that I am otherwise quite blind to.

No other British writer has ever appealed to me, not even the great bard, whose plays, I do like to watch.

Among American writers, Hemingway has always been a favorite. F. Scott Fitzgerald is fun to read, and James Michener, for some reason, makes me reach out to the people across time, that Maugham made too distant to touch.

I have no favorites from the Russian, East European and Latin corners of the world. Not because I don't like reading translations, but because a lot gets lost in translation.

Of all the Indian writers that I have ever read, I have three favorites. R. K. Narayan, though from times that are long gone, stirs the soul. Khushwant Singh, now gone, will forever be the only writer that has scolded me, and made me laugh in the same page. And Ruskin Bond has made me cry -- many times.

Of the new crop of "famous" Indian writers, I don't like any. Some are too bombastic with their choice of words, and some are simply too commercial. Biswanath Ghosh, has great potential, for he writes from his heart, but unlike the great sardar, Mr. Ghosh, seems to have a drink too many, when he writes. He does make me laugh and cry though -- sometimes -- alternately.

One more writer that deserves a special mention, is Shobha De. I have read too many Indian writers who like to impress with what they know. Mrs. De, is quite the opposite -- she lets the reader discover what she already knows. She writes beautifully, and the impact of each word is carefully measured. Her language is deliberately kept simple, something, that the new crop of Indian writers can learn from. Her stories, though sometimes shocking, awake me to some aspects of India, that Sir Vidiadhar was perhaps too reluctant to experience and write about. And, being the gracious writer she is, she always responds to my emails.

Other than Maugham, the only ones that have kept me awake through the night are R. K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond. Both, with their short stories, some of which, have also made me cry.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hark! The Aardvark or the Lark?

Summer holidays in India can be extremely boring.

As a child, I used to get pretty excited in April, about the impending holidays. Around this time of the year, you could still find the red and orange Palash flowers on the hilly trails of Jharkhand. The Lantana bushes would be overgrown and messy, and one would have to wade through them to stay on the beaten track. Then, the summer would quickly arrive. The bushes would become dry and shriveled, and the afternoon sun would be too bright to make a trip outside the house possible. Around an hour after lunch, when everyone would have fallen asleep, a black crow, which used to live in the tree behind the house, would start cawing incessantly. For some reason, it always reminded me of my English teacher.

Right before the school closed for vacation, our English teacher would remind us that at our age, he knew every single word in the English dictionary. And so, inevitably, on most afternoons, after the crow stopped cawing, I would take out my well-worn edition of "The Oxford's English Dictionary", and turn to page one, with the resolve that I too would become the dictionary one day. But it was always the first word, that stopped me dead in my tracks. How in the world, would a snouty ant eater, make it to the most coveted spot in the English dictionary. The Aardvark, I always thought, must have friends in really high places.

Since the two As put the Aardvark in quite an enviable spot in the English dictionary, I always wondered if India's newest political party with national ambitions, had similar objectives, when they chose their name. The Aam Aadmi Party (common man's party), would easily appear at the top of any alphabetical list of political parties in India. Were you to abbreviate it to AAP instead, you still wouldn't be able to dislodge it from the top. In fact, I have had a gnawing suspicion for quite some time, that someone in the AAP, in his or her childhood, had come to envy the Aardvark -- just like me.

Since we are talking politics, and since the largest democracy in the known universe is going through its largest transfer of responsibility and blame, from the huddled masses to a few chosen ones, I thought that I too, should express my opinion by cawing a bit.  And trust me, I would not have. In fact, I was planning to quietly march up to the nearest polling booth on election day, and vote. Simply. And then, came the postman.

The Economist, our favorite family magazine, has decided to usher in the daybreak this week, by playing the Lark. I don't like to beat about the bush, and so, I will just say it -- this week's edition disappointed me.

On the cover, they have put a photograph of a stern looking Mr. Narendra Modi, who has also thrown in a frown -- for good measure. In its editorial, the "newspaper" has expressed its inability to "back" Mr. Modi for India's highest office. First, it acknowledges the fact that Mr. Modi is perhaps better qualified than anyone else, to lead India to better times and deliver the fruits of economic development to the aspirational youth of today. Next, it reaffirms that in spite of the good things that Mr. Modi might have done, he has not yet apologized for the riots of 2002, from which, the judicial system may have exonerated him. And then, it chides Mr. Modi, for not wearing a skullcap in atonement.

While Mr. Modi may have been condemned for being biased, the esteemed "newspaper" cannot claim to be completely free of the same hazardous human infliction. What if I called The Economist a magazine, generally written for, and read by the rich white anglo-saxon man? What if I said that expressing public distrust in the judicial system of an "inferior brown-black" country, shows bias of the kind that cannot be washed down with the choicest of single malts, that the Scottish bureau might dispatch respectfully to the editor, from time to time? And what if, the fact that the editorial staff does not show up for work in turbans, can be construed as utter disrespect for the Sikh community in Britain?

Nonsense, they would say. And so do I.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Philosophical Soliloquy

Often, when Dhanno ki Amma and I fight, I threaten her that I will leave her for the life of a yogi in the Himalayas. She threatens me right back, claiming that I would not last a day without chicken biryani and Scotch. Deep philosophical  thoughts can only feed the soul -- and -- there is a lot of the corporeal material, still left in Desi Babu.

A few days ago, while flipping through random channels, I came across one of the best made serials in the history of Indian television, ever. Bharat - Ek Khoj created by Shyam Benegal, was based on Jawaharlal Nehru's famous book, The Discovery of India. Over the years, I have watched many episodes over and over again, and yet, they never seem to lose the appeal they had for me, when I watched them for the first time, years ago.

Every episode of this serial begins with a chant in Hindi, which goes like this:

Srishti se pehle sat nahin thaa, asat bhee nahin
Antariksh bhee nahin, aakaash bhee nahin thaa.
Chhipaa thaa kyaa, kahaan, kisne dhaka thaa?
Us pal to agam, atal jal bhee kahaan thaa.

There was no truth before creation, and no untruth
There was no space, and no ether.
What was hidden where? And who hid it there?
At that moment, even the bottomless, calm, water didn't exist.

This is Hindu philosophy at its original best, asking questions, and encouraging people to do the same, rather than giving out all the answers. This text, a translation of the first verse of the 129th hymn of the tenth book of the Rig Veda, is in a class of its own, representing that very mind set of our ancestors -- people, who were never afraid to ask. And that recollection, has forced me to ask a few questions of my own, in the last few days -- on life, death, and what comes first.

Last week, my personal hero, Sardar Khushwant Singh, passed away.

Like countless other Indians who are his fans, I had always wished that he lived to be a hundred. According to the books that he recently wrote, it was very clear that he did not want to. Ninety nine, seemed to be where he would end up drawing the line. And a line he did draw.

At first, I did not know what to write about Sardarji. While most of us grew up reading his books and weekly columns, over the last decade or so, we had learned to wean ourselves off from his repertoire. But one thing that had consistently struck a chord with me, was his stand on matters such as politics and religion. Sardarji was a lifelong admirer of the congress party, and an agnostic. Although I am neither, I always admired this trait of him -- knowing where he stood on things, and not being a vagabond of thoughts.

So, when I thought of writing an obituary for Sardarji, I ended up reproducing a poem by Kabir Das verbatim. This fifteenth century pearl of wisdom affirms that while everyone has to die, one should know where they stand on things. And Sardarji knew that quite well.

It must have been very strange for him in the final years. To see that people much younger than him, were dying out. An entire generation of actors, musicians and other people that Sardarji must have written about in his heydays, disappeared before his eyes. While it is not easy to die, it is not easy to live long either. However, when he could write, his work was spirited. Life seemed to appear out of nowhere his sentences, even if they were punctuated with stories of death. Often, reading what he wrote, I was reminded of one of the fundamental tenets of Shaivite philosophy, where Shiva says, "Death itself is the the fire, that begets life."

Based on the various interviews that came out, Sardarji did not lose his sense of humor in his sunset years. To him, the question of life and death must have been like the question of chicken and egg. And nothing beats a plate of fried Punjabi kukkad, smothered in butter, and topped with sliced boiled eggs.

A few weeks ago, I had gone to a restaurant for lunch, and ordered my favorite fare, a plate of chicken biryani. Since I am a regular, the waiters there know what I usually order, and sometimes, double check my food before bringing it out to me. That day, as they were bringing the food out, they kept whispering something to each other, and pointing to the plate. I wouldn't have been surprised if they had chanced upon a lizard in that gargantuan pile of fragrant rice and savory chicken. In a couple of bites, I discovered what they were worried about. Somehow, they had switched orders, and brought out a plate of egg biryani to me. As I pointed out the mistake, about three of the waiters swooped down on my plate, took it away, and brought out a steaming plate of my original order within a minute. If someone has told you that being a good tipper does nothing for you, please ignore them.

After I finished my meal, I remarked jokingly to the waiter that while the world was still unsure about what came first, the chicken or the egg -- I could say with certainty now, that the egg came first. He didn't catch my joke, and as ninety-nine percent of the waiters in India are trained to do, he mentioned rather nervously that he would ask his manager and let me know. In a few minutes, he did reappear to let me know, quite seriously, that no one really knew what came first -- the chicken biryani or the egg biryani. However, he could get me another plate of either, if I so desired.

Now that the great Sardar is gone, I wondered what he would have done in my situation. Unlike me, he was blessed with the pithy wisdom of the fertile land that spans five rivers. I am quite sure that he would have put on a big smile and said, "Dono ke ek ek plate le ao, main pata kar loonga kaun aya tha pehle! (Bring me a plate of each, I will find out what came first.)"

I am sure, that Sardar Khushwant Singh is now sitting in his personal heaven, shaped like a light bulb, surrounded by piles of books and bottles of single malt whiskey. And once in a while, he probably contemplates on deep philosophical questions. Like what came first, the chicken, or the egg.