Saying no to reading favours

So I attend this book club at a library that I frequent. After a few meetings, one old man started pestering me to read a book he had written.

They are all old men there. Sometimes I think there are no young men left in the city. At least no young men who read. A handful of people land up at the book club most of whom are there because they are retired. And exactly two women including me. Where are the women who read as well?

You could ask me what am I doing there. Well, about 90% of time, I am conducting it. By that I mean come up with discussion questions and host the session. It’s not that difficult.

Anyway too polite to refuse, I agreed. And immediately regretted it. I had no idea how many pages that book had. I warned him that if I don’t like it I will be honest. He nodded his head vigorously. Right awat, I knew I wouldn’t like the book. Thankfully, I got only one chapter to read. I discovered that he had illustrated it too! Well, I told him exactly what I thought of that chapter. I didn’t like it. There was such forced humour and puns without any effort at the craft. Puns, I am sure you’d have heard, are the lowest form of wit. Imagine if there are only puns in a chapter. Of course, I softened it a bit. I didn’t want the old man having a heart attack right there.

I ended the review with a disclaimer that I usually give for anything I review: ‘Feel free to ignore what I said and go with your instinct’. He replied without batting an eyelid, ‘Yes, I intend to do exactly that.’ What the eff? Then why waste my time?

This is the last time I am doing a stranger a favour. I don’t mind reading books of friends because (a) I know them (b) I care about them (c) I enjoy reading what they write because we think alike but strangers are a different species. I’ve made up my mind: I will not be reading books of anyone whom I have just met.

A blog to remember

When you have some time, do hop over to my friend, D’s blog so much depends on and enjoy reading her poetic turn of phrase. She is a new blogger and let’s welcome her!

The title as you’d have noticed is from the poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams. Here is the complete poem:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

I thought the poem itself was like a dotted line. You join the dots as you please and decide on what emerges. Coming to think of it, all poems are.

For more on the poem, go over to the Wondering Minstrels for a substantial commentary.

Back to the post: do read D’s posts. They are as much poetry as they are prose.

New Look

So I grew bored of the blog theme and changed it. The previous one Book Lite, with its close proximity to the Thought Catalog theme, was on for the longest time ever. This neat new theme is called Independent Publisher. I like the overall look and feel. Adding that extra touch is the name. Anything with the word ‘independent’ in it gets my vote!

The header image that you can see is that of a house in Sowcarpet, a part of North Madras, which still has the old-world charm and retains a colonial feel that much of Madras/Chennai has lost. A and I went hunting for wholesalers in the lanes of Sowcarpet when I came across this house. I thought it was colourful and well-maintained.

You will find things changed a bit. But I find this arrangement far more intuitive than others. All the links that were at the bottom of the blog are now on the left. There is a menu on the right of the header image which has the pages (About, Books, Theatre, Films, Media and Lomo Diary). Everything else is the same including I think my irregularity of posting.

So, what do you think of the new look? Good? Bad? Ugly? Would love it if you let me know in the comments section below.

Note on books: La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

I picked this book up at the Book Fair earlier in the year and got around to reading it thanks to the fact that I was housebound for a week. I liked McCall Smith’s other books and I thought that it would be easier to read since it is a standalone book not a part of the series. Well, I was right.

La’s Orchestra is a sedate little book about Lavender Fergusson (later La and Mrs. Stone) that is very much in the same vein as Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. A sort of a feel-good book about peripheral people during the Second World War. But then I was looking for a sedate book and it lived up to my expectations. You can even treat this book as a holiday from other exciting books.

Pretty much nothing happens in the book even though Word War II rages on. We follow La as she is born in Surrey, loses her mother at 15, goes to college at Cambridge, marries, separates and goes back and forth Suffolk and London. She seems the most intellectually engaged when studying English Literature under the militant Feminist Dr Price in Cambridge and that’s usually by disagreeing with her. She marries Richard Stone because he is very charming and persuasive and is shocked by both her infertility and his infidelity. (I don’t believe they are causally related. As La herself says during her student discussion on T.S Elliot, ‘Post hoc is not always propter hoc.’)

Her in-laws’ Suffolk home sounds like a perfect getaway. She comes on her own after she moves to Suffolk to heal her broken heart. When Richard dies in France in a freak accident, his share of their family enterprise makes La a young and well-off widow. While living in rural Suffolk, she wants to do something for the war effort. She tends to farmer Henry’s hens, builds a friendship with the neighbour Mrs. Agg and farmer Henry and Tim, a friend’s cousin who calls on her. Out of sheer boredom (La’s an intelligent though somewhat passive woman) she puts together a rag-tag orchestra, which becomes a symbol of victory first and then of peace. With Tim making all the arrangements, La’s Orchestra is born.

When Feliks Dabrowski, a Polish airman, is assigned to work in Henry’s farm, La feels attracted to him as he does too however reserved he is. But there is a war going on and so along with tea and biscuits, love seems a luxury to indulge in. She also suspects that Feliks is German and the general mistrust in the air creates a spot of trouble where Feliks is arrested. Later he is released honourably, which makes La feel guilty. Five years on, the Orchestra gives its Victory concert, which cheers up the village enormously and fills them with a sense of purpose that is not just to do with guns and politics. La conducts her orchestra, which had long started to take on symbolic proportions. Feliks too plays in it. However, after the war, people are scattered and she goes back to life in London, which is markedly different from the one she led before that.

Her in-laws’ considerable fortune comes to her, leaving her with no worries about how to fund her life. If anything, La seems to have both time and money and yet doesn’t seem to do much with it. She is politically aware and even joins a peace march sometime in her 50s. She meets Feliks who has married and has two kids. With the arms race and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s, La feels the end of the world looming close yet again and so calls on her the few Orchestra buddies she had been in touch with through the years. They turn up as if summoned and the Orchestra plays its peace concert. Towards the end of the concert, peace is declared. Hence, the title. Only if you allow for the flawed logic, which seems to be an echo of ‘post hoc is not always propter hoc.’ Towards the end of the book, she makes a decision to ask Feliks and his boys to stay with her.

La is one of the most detached protagonists I have ever read. Events happen to her; she is not the one who decides. If Murakami ever decides on a female protagonist, La would be her. But it’s refreshing since there are very few protagonists whose agency is not with them. Sometimes, other things and people make decisions. La does have ideas, making the decision to move to Suffolk and move back to London, growing her vegetable garden, taking lemonade to Feliks as he works on the farm. But there is this feeling that La holds her breath and waits around way too much. Her sense of decorum and propriety stop her from acting on her feelings. In that sense La is almost ordinary. But ordinariness also has its place in the scheme of things. The ordinary English life, the ordinary English people, the ordinary garden – it seems the war was being fought to protect exactly this ordinary life. So La’s Orchestra, the book, is a celebration of ordinariness. It makes me think of Doctor Who and the Doctor’s delight in the everyday and ordinary human beings.

So the book’s a read for a lazy Sunday afternoon preferably in the garden with a cup of tea and biscuits. It won’t shake your beliefs or make you question anything. It will however make you feel warm and take delight in the ordinary.

Upma and upma*

When working with some people from Delhi I had a linguistic revelation. My Delhi born and educated colleague R’s eye would light up whenever I mentioned ‘upma’. She complimented my eloquent Hindi. I was so flattered. She asked where I learnt it since I have lived all my life down South. I replied it was first in college and then through television. The television remark seemed to startle her a bit. It turns out we were talking about different things. She thought the ‘upma’ I referred to was the Hindi word for simile. And all I was talking about was the South Indian snack made from dry roasted semolina. There was an aha moment on both sides and then we had a good laugh.

 

*Any resemblance to legal firms is coincidental.

Tea, walks and conversations

Recently D, the same old college friend from the previous post, was in town and we met up before she left again. Her idea was to go for tea and then a walk and completely avoid the usual hangouts. I agreed. After receiving some lovely gifts (craft shop and antique shop finds – how well D knows me!), we headed for tea.

I chose Lloyd’s Tea House because of its variety of teas and regretted it as soon as we set foot in it. It was so noisy that I was feeling stressed within a few seconds. That was probably the only jarring note that evening. Lloyds Tea House is the latest pretentious experiment to dot the café landscape of this city. I say pretentious because the décor tries hard to appear hipster-ish but somehow the whole thing doesn’t come together. Typewriters fastened to walls do not help if the place is so noisy that I had shout to be heard. It was very far from the quiet conversation with a friend that I wanted.

While we sipped on flavoured teas, D read out her poem-in-progress which I loved. The first cuppa was all novelty what with mini hourglasses and coloured sand to measure the exact soaking time for the tea leaves (thank god it was not tea bags) and other new things. It was fun but the taste of the tea was nothing above ordinary. The second cuppa was very soothing.

We stepped out with relief to take a Jane Austen-ish ‘turn’ through the not-so-posh lanes of Alwarpet (yes, they do exist). As soon as we turned into the interior roads, the silence was exquisite. It felt so wonderful to hear birdsong as we talked about PhD topics, Shashi Tharoor, books, poetry and an old aunt of hers who owns a beautiful but dilapidated bungalow right there on the main road. I wouldn’t be able to recall the exact conversation we had but it was such fun.

I came away with a sense of calm that carried me through over the next several days.

Theorising about reading

I met an old friend D after a long time. A long time equals to not since college. She was my senior in my master’s. Being a poet and a reader herself, the subject of reading isn’t far from our conversations. We were at an Indological bookshop and while browsing the shelves, she asked me if I was able to read complex theoretical texts as we used to read earlier. Soon she pointed me to Spivak’s translation of Jacques Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’. Maybe that’s what got her thinking in the first place.

I thought a bit and confessed no. But then I didn’t have to. Unless I seek out complex theoretical stuff, it doesn’t exactly fall into my lap. I just assumed that some neurons were lost or eroded through disuse. But she had a different take. According to her, we have started to develop our own complex ideas, and hence it becomes difficult to read another’s. I thought that was profound. And perhaps more than a bit accurate.

(I am relieved; I can actually blame my original ideas for the slow progress through the Goodreads reading challenge this year.)