Storytelling with Emily Parrish

The first week of February has been hectic in a good way after a long time. Story telling performances on two days and plays on the other two meant that I grabbed every excuse (oops, reason) to get away from work and land up (sometimes rather early) at the respective venues.

I like performance poetry (or spoken word) but performance storytelling is new to me. When the British Council sent me an email informing me about the ‘Art of Storytelling Workshop’, I ignored it. Much later when A asked me if I’d be interested, I went back and gave it a long second look. I had no idea what it entailed. Then I saw her performance on YouTube and I was hooked. Yep, I was interested. I don’t know if I will tell a story to anyone but it looked like fun.

On February 4th the storytelling festival was inaugurated. The British Council and the Storytelling Institute were partnering to bring the annual storytelling festival this time. Apparently they have been doing this for a while. This is the first time I was attending it. I just wanted to see Emily Parrish perform. After some perfunctory speeches, a welcome address and one very boring and long lecture about the India tradition of storytelling by someone who could make the best stories sound blah without much effort, finally we got to see Emily perform. She opened up a completely new world. What a world that was!

She told us three stories that night. The first one was about the old man and three sons. And how he puts them to the test by asking a question – what is sharp and sweet at the same time? The first two fail, the last one makes it.

The next one was about Shiva and Parvati, which is very brave of her. I mean an English person telling an Indian story to an Indian audience. She apologised for taking liberties with the story. An apology which I thought was unnecessary but it did assuage some of the silver-headed people in the audience. Telling a story is a bit like editing. One has to pick out the best bits of info and work on it. And she may have left out some details, which one member of the audience pointed out during the question and answer session. Hence, a completely unnecessary apology.

Finally, the last story was about Loki, the trickster god, from the Norse mythology. In this one he steals the goddess Freya’s apples which keep the gods and goddesses young and healthy. And in his eagerness to get out of a bind, he ends up tricking Freya to a villainous eagle. And how he gets her out of the bind forms the rest of the story.

As you can see fairly good representation of Norse and Indian mythology as well as folk tales. What enraptured me was not the content of the story though that did play a part, it was the way she told the story. For an hour that evening, as the sun set and artificial lights lit up the courtyard at the British Council, we – the storyteller and the audience – recreated one of the oldest settings for a story – a roaring fire and people sitting around it. We listened rapt in attention as Emily turned her body into an instrument to create the Himalayas, or the mountain where Freya was captured or the roadside where the brothers found the sweet and sharp things. It was the way she asked the audience to fill in some details in the story. It was the way with a flick of a wrist or a nod of a head, or a bend of her back she become Loki, Odin, an old man, a young man, Shiva or Parvati. She was not just a story teller, she was a chameleon and a shape shifter. She made the known world disappear and a new one appear in its place. How many people can claim to do that? I was in awe. And completely charmed by this young woman who was in effect a magician. I had signed up for the workshop the next day where she said she would teach us this magic.

The next day for three hours the 28 of us, sadly mostly teachers not including me, learnt in a small way how to create this magic. I say ‘sadly mostly teachers’ because they were there because they wanted to use storytelling to teach kids. While teaching is noble indeed, and teaching through storytelling fantastic in itself, (I don’t think my teachers ever felt that obliged to tell stories) I would prefer kids being told stories for the sake of being told stories. I suppose I live in an idealistic world inside my head. There is no such thing in real life. Teachers were here, schools were informed and certificates handed over. But leaving aside these practicalities, we had fun!

We listened to Emily create a story, we learnt to take apart a story and examine what she called the ‘bare bones’, we learnt how to use different points of view to bring the story alive, we learnt to use gestures and rhyme to cater to children, we learnt how to develop a 2 minute sequence of a story using sensory details and our body. We also learnt about using stock characters or archetypes in the story.  Of course, we were not going to master it in a few hours but we learnt a bit that afternoon that we will perhaps take back with us for a lifetime. I love the relaxation exercises that involved some imaginary chewing gum. (Have I intrigued you yet? I am not going to explain that. I will leave it up to your imagination. Let’s just say it was sufficiently imaginary and icky and very physical!) I loved the way I could act like I was picking my unsuspecting neighbour’s pocket when I was asked to play a thief. Everyone had a laugh at that! The poor guy had no idea why everyone was laughing.

I was a bit shy to begin with but as the session went on, I become more and more comfortable and lost any self-consciousness I had. By the end of the workshop, I was suggesting books that people could read. (For the curious, I suggested Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ as a way to understanding archetypes.) I met some filmmakers, teachers, professors and principals.

What I would be interested in carrying from this workshop are the techniques that I can apply to tell a modern and contemporary story. Emily had studied under Vayu Naidu, a storyteller herself. Emily used mythology and folk tales mostly. But I wondered if new stories could be created using these elements for a contemporary audience. I raised this question and she confessed that she didn’t like princesses who needed rescuing. I know what she meant. I prefer distressing damsels to damsels in distress too.

When I was telling my 2 minute sequence to my group, I could see how their reaction changed the story. After 4 hours of energy exchange, I felt strangely recharged, energised and raring to go. Telling stories is in a way an exchange of energy. I loved every minute of it. While I am not sure if I will practice it in the way that Emily does or the teachers will do, I know that this is yet another dimension to exploring the story. And I am always interested in that.

The refusal

Every year around December, January or February the Dastkaar Haat (crafts bazaar) makes its appearance on the grounds of Kalakshetra, the dance school started by Rukmini Devi Arundale in South Chennai. It’s an open air market which stocks handmade and artisan items from all over India. It stays for around a week and then disappears. The newspapers announce its arrival and my friends and I wait for it eagerly to get stuff that you wouldn’t normally get here. In spite of its globe-totting citizens, Chennai sometimes has the air of a village.

I usually make more than one trip. So this year too I went twice. By now I can recognise the same faces who have travelled long to get here. It must seem strange to them to set up stalls on sand and sit and wait for customers, show their wares and then from time to time make a sale. This year was like the other years well attended. So I am sure they managed a profit. Obviously, some stalls were more popular than the others. This is also the time I exercise my Hindi! After leaving my last job, I haven’t got much practice in one of the national languages.

A favourite is tiger stall (that’s what I call it; it’s not the real name). That’s the Dastkaar Ranthambore from Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan. There is always a crowd in front of it. They have perfected the tiger motif on a variety of household and personal items. What sets apart the stall from the others is the finish of their products. It is very well done. Most craft items have a bit – sometimes more – of unevenness because they are made by hand. But the products of this stall are nearly as good as say Fab India or Kalpa Druma.

While I weighed this jhola against that, Smart Aunty standing next to me video called her daughter in Singapore who sounded more annoyed than happy to show her the contents of the stall. There she stood like a director panning the camera. Annoyed Daughter chose a tiger motif razai (duvet) and promptly disconnected the call saying that baby is hungry and she needs to feed him. Smart Aunty waited patiently for her daughter to call back. I moved on.

My absolute favourite this year was the Ladakhi Jewellery stall. A weather-beaten man from the mountains who I later found out had sold sweaters in Malda, a district in Bengal, was selling typical Tibetian jewellery. Written on a simple yellow chart paper with no embellishment and in uneven hand board were the words ‘Ladakh Jewelry’. All the embellishment was left for the exotic (to my eyes) jewellery. I have been making some of my jewellery the past year but this was something else. I could feel the tradition and technique that must have taken long to develop. I fell in love with some of these pieces. As my friend would testify I went a bit berserk there. Each of those turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli necklaces stole my heart.

On my second visit, the atmosphere was electric. North Eastern folk dancers, Rajasthani musicians and puppeteers filled the air with music. But what caught my attention was this woman in traditional clothing. She was in charge of a stall selling cloth bags. But the bags were not half as interesting as she was. Her ink-black hair severely parted in the middle, the dupatta over her head, tonnes of jewellery and a wrinkled face.

There was no one at her stall. And for good reason: she looked formidable. She was definitely from a tribe in the west of India but I couldn’t guess the state. She drew me to her; I immediately had this feeling that I had to take her picture. For all my loquaciousness, I am a shy person. It took some nerve for me to walk up to her and ask her in Hindi if I could take her picture. She didn’t understand me. Next I repeated my request followed by the universal sign for taking a picture – an air click. She looked at my fingers and then she understood me. For a fleeting second, I thought she would agree. But no. She refused. In her refusal was this immense sense of weariness. Like I was the hundredth person asking for her photograph. There was a huge story here. Who knows how many people would have walked by her stall and asked for her picture? Who knows how many times she accepted? Who knows how many she refused? Who knows what unpleasant experience she had with a person who took her photograph before? In that refusal, I sensed the weight – and wait – of her days. It must be lonely to be so far away from home, sitting here in the middle of perhaps nowhere, selling things to make her living. We must all seem so alien to her. This picture taking business she must find unusual and weird. These boxes that we carry around and talk to and take pictures with must seem so far away from her world. Or perhaps she sensed that I was trying to exoticise her. I will be honest, I was. It is a response I am not too proud of. She could not perhaps articulate it but I am sure she knew the feeling. I was the self and she was the other. I was exoticising the other. That was so much like the Occidental response to the Orient. In refusing to let me take her picture, she refused to be a part of this interaction, refused to engage with me because it was solely on my terms. She may look traditional but her attitude was modern. I respected her wishes and immediately left. It was a relief to be refused. She has this intensity which made me hold my breath. Some people draw you to them by their intensity. As I moved out of the radius of her presence I relaxed and also felt a bit ashamed for having troubled her.

I don’t know how photographers ask for pictures and get people to agree. This incident has left an indelible mark on my mind. It will be a long time before I will ask anyone for their picture.

Notes and documentation

I have noticed an increased traffic from students looking for spark notes or cliff notes on a particular book to my blog. While I am not surprised – I write ‘notes’ after all – I know documentation can be a pain. The MLA, APA and Chicago Manual are all constantly evolving so now we know how to cite blogs, a comment on a blog, a blog post or even an online poem on your dissertation/thesis/paper. A copy of the latest edition should be in your school/college/university library. I have a hard copy, which I rarely use. The MLA website has I notice become difficult to access, requiring a sign in and all. So here is the latest MLA style based on the 7th edition 2009 publication. (MLA is perhaps the most appropriate citation style for literature students.) There are websites that automatically arrange your entries according to the specific criteria and alphabetical order as well. That is your cheat sheet! I never had such ease when I was writing my dissertation. Students today are a lot luckier than I was.

A preview and a masterclass

On January 28th, I attended a preview of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play Free Outgoing directed by Mahesh Dattani. It is the first time in India (in three cities – Bangalore, Madras and Bombay) that this play is being performed.

The space was the Edouard Michelin auditorium at the Alliance Francaise Madras, a place that holds a lot of memories for me. Many many years before, I had worked backstage for Anushka Ravishankar’s plays Cockroach and Do You Love Me?. What an idyllic time it was! I was in charge of the music. Before you imagine me with any high-tech stuff, let me assure you all I did was press a button! Every day after work (work at that time wrapped up at 5.30) for nearly 2 months (or was it 3?), I used to go to the old Amethyst for rehearsals. In my case, it was sitting on mat and observing while people acted and created these perfect and fragile little alternate realities. Sometimes I substituted for an actor if she failed to turn up. I met some wonderful people during that time. I was happy. The final shows were at the Edouard Michelin auditorium. In one of those performance nights, I stumbled down the steps because it was too dark inside! I literally went thump thump thump in the middle of a performance. It’s to actor’s credit that she didn’t stop acting. Since then I haven’t worked in a play so know you know why I am reminiscing. I did go back to watch plays – it is probably the theatre space almost every theatre group has performed in. This time, I went back to the auditorium to see the first ever preview (of anything) that I have attended.

I’ve read Free Outgoing as a text but never seen it been performed. So this was a treat! After the show the director Mahesh Dattani wanted to know the feedback of the people who attended the preview. So we took the discussion from the auditorium upstairs to the circular space downstairs. And that is when I got my impromptu masterclass. He asked about emotional impact of the play, what worked and what didn’t. I told him. I listened as other people said many things – some of which I didn’t agree with but still which made me look at the play from a different angle. He spoke to the actors about what they were doing well and what wasn’t working. Creating something this intangible on stage – much of which relies on the unknown second party i.e. the audience – is so difficult and extraordinary. I’ve always respected the process but this was something else, a new point of view. I learnt so much just by observing him. I read Mahesh Dattani’s plays in college. I did have my quiet fangirl moment!

As you noticed, I refrained from talking about the show itself. That’s because you should watch it! Bangalore people have had the privilege already. People in Bombay will get to see it on 12 February at the NCPA. Please go if you can. If you are in Madras, the show is on today 6th February and tomorrow 7th February at the Museum Theatre, Egmore. Tickets are available here. See you there!

Notes on books: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve been carrying this article in my head for a while. I edit it while travelling or watching TV or any work that does not require 100% of my attention. I have difficulty switching off sometimes so I also edit it in my head before dropping off to sleep. It’s time to put it down – literally and figuratively.

Adichie has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while but for some reason or the books didn’t come to me. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I read this book towards the end of last year. In the middle of a maddening time workwise, this book was my refuge, my sanctuary when I needed something solid to hold on to. I could get into the world of Adichie’s story and stay there protected from the real world.

Let me introduce you to it. Fifteen-year-old Kambili and her brother Jaja live strictly prescribed and compartmentalised lives in Enugu, Nigeria. Their affluent lives are chalked out into neat sections – study, eat, pray and school. They are growing up in the care of their silent and long-suffering mother Beatrice and father Eugene Achike. Eugene is a generous God-fearing man who looks after everybody in his personal and professional orbit. He is considered an elder and he takes his responsibility seriously. As an industrialist and publisher, he is a fierce protector of his employees. Kambili looks up to him as do the people in his community. There is only one chink in his armour, his fatal flaw if you will, Eugene is a strict and sadist disciplinarian who doesn’t think twice about hitting his wife or whipping his son or pouring boiling water on his daughter’s feet for what he considers the ‘devil’s work.’ The devil’s work is having an opinion different from him. But Eugene is not the hero of our story, Kambili is.

When Aunt Ifeoma, Eugene’s sister visits them, she brings with her an air of freedom and laughter. As a professor at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, she lives in the professor’s quarters on campus with her three children. Her husband, Ifediora, is no more. Aunt Ifeoma takes Kambili and Jaja away from Enugu on the pretext of visiting a Christian shrine and opens them up to the world of laughter, literature, music and ideas. They are deprived of many physical comforts but they are exposed to love, laughter, opinions, literature, music and ideas. It is far cry from the life they are accustomed to but slowly they start appreciating it. Their cousins the politically-aware Amaka, the pragmatic Obiora and the very young Chima help them settle in. Jaja is a sensitive soul who discovers his love for gardening almost immediately. Kambili takes a while to discard her darling Papa’s conditioning. Almost against her will, she discovers music and love: she begins to love the Afrobeat music of the Nigerian musician Fela and develops a crush on Aunt Ifeoma’s friend, Father Amadi. Removed from the oppressiveness of their home, they finally begin to live.

Nothing lasts forever and definitely not this idyllic pause in Kambili and Jaja’s life. Eugene has disowned his father, Papa Nnukwu, because he worships the traditional gods. He wants his father to convert to Christianity and be ‘saved’. But Papa Nnukwu sticks to his beliefs. Kambili and Jaja are allowed to visit Papa Nnukwu for 15 minutes each year when the Achike family move back to their hometown for a month in summer. They are not allowed to eat or drink anything in the ‘heathen’ home. But when they go to live with Aunt Ifeoma, they learn a bit about their grandfather and even grow to love him.

Aunt Ifeoma looks after Papa Nnukwu in his last days. When he dies, all hell breaks loose for Kambili and Jaja. They are forced back to their own homes and airtight schedules but having tasted freedom can now no longer tolerate the oppression at home. Their transgressions which were minor and accidental before (Kambili came second in class once) become more serious and deliberate (Jaja refuses to go to communion and Kambili possesses a painting of Papa Nnukwu made by Amaka). Their punishments become severe to match their transgressions. So much so that Kambili has to be admitted to the hospital. She gets better but is so scared to come home that she starts pretending that she hasn’t recovered. When she does, Jaja does the unthinkable. He walks out with Kambili to their Aunt’s home, their true home.

Aunt Ifeoma, her children, Jaja and Kambili start their second innings together. But this time their time here is short lived as there is unrest in the University of Nigeria at Nsukka which affects both students and teachers. Aunt Ifeoma decides to leave the country to America and Kambili and Jaja have to go back to their father’s home. But things come to a boil when they get back. Jaja is imprisoned for something he didn’t do and Kambili and her mother wait for his release.

The first thing that struck me was the opening line:

Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère. (Adichie, 3)

What a bold homage to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart! I get the feeling that Adichie is planning on walking on his footsteps but in her own way through her own stories.

Breaking seem to almost be the running theme of this book. Eugene breaks with tradition when he converts to Christianity. The relationship between Papa Nnukwu and Eugene is definitely broken.  Eugene breaks Beatrice’s figurines right at the beginning of the book. He also breaks Jaja’s little finger when he is a kid as punishment for disobeying him. Their mother Beatrice seems like a broken lady right from the beginning but who carries on for appearances sake. Yet she shows unbelievable strength when she makes a choice. Jaja and Kambili break several rules at different stages in the narrative. They also break Eugene’s heart by rejecting his home and preferring his sister’s. The Achike family, completely whole from the looks of it, is actually crumbling apart. The family is the smallest social unit. What happens in the family reflects on the state. On a macrocosmic level, Nigeria itself seems to be coming apart. There is unrest and riots in the University which makes Aunt Ifeoma leave the country in effect breaking a centuries old connection with the land. The young priest Father Amadi breaks Kambili’s heart. And we don’t know if Jaja will break from his experience in prison. To counter this much breakage, Kambili writes, narrates, remembers and tells her story.

In telling her story, she employs her voice. It’s the voice of a grown up woman looking back at a turning point in her childhood. There is some amount of nostalgia but nothing that takes away from the veracity of her account. An immense sadness tinges the entire first person narrative. It’s like the last summer of her childhood before she had to grow up.

Growing up involves making choices for oneself. Choices that may not concur with that of the parents. Kambili and Jaja choose Aunt Ifeoma’s emotionally and intellectually rich home over the material wealth of their own father’s. Several such oppositions play out against each other in the story – rich and poor (in all its connotations), Christian and pagan, traditional and modern, reason and emotion, oppression and freedom, fear and fearlessness, silence and speech and home and abroad.

For Kambili home becomes Nsukka, where Aunt Ifeoma stays and not Enugu, where her parents do. The first time when Kambili and Jaja come over to Nsukka, Aunt Ifeoma drives them around the city and Amaka introduces them to the landscape of Nsukka. In these descriptions of hills, professor’s quarters, university buildings, you can feel Adichie’s love for her beloved hometown. Purple Hibiscus, the novel itself, is Adichie’s love letter to Nsukka.

Adichie is the master of atmosphere. When Kambili describes her experience, there is this extreme oppressiveness weighing the narrative down. And while that becomes better in the Nsukka sections, there is this certain gravitas that stays till the end. Kambili’s quiet and calm behaviour hides intense and sensitive feelings. Something that Father Amadi senses and Aunt Ifeoma knows but Eugene is oblivious to.

Aunt Ifeoma is an amateur gardener experimenting with a rare variety of hibiscus. In the beginning of the book, Kambili compares Jaja’s defiance to Aunt’s Ifeoma’s purple hibiscus. But I think Kambili herself is the Purple Hibiscus of the book’s title. She is the rebellious one and she thrives when transplanted to another place. Her rebellion though is not like Jaja’s full of action. Her rebellion is quieter and full of reflection.

Reading this book was like being in a trance not just till the story lasted but much later too. I had to read another Adichie after this. But Purple Hibiscus is in a league of its own. I cannot imagine that Adichie wrote this when she was only 26! It’s truly an accomplishment for any writer but even more so for a first time one.

My Own Private Book Fest – 2

Somewhat like Peter Jackson and his three Hobbit films, I have decided to split up my book fest post into two posts. This is the second and final post.

It’s been an unusually good harvest of books both from the Chennai Book Fair and the Landmark Spencer Plaza sale. If I thought the 10% discount (at the Chennai Book Fair) made me reckless enough to buy a tonne of books, you should have seen me struggling with the basket facing the 90% off board at each table at Landmark! According to their staff, Landmark Spencer Plaza is closing for ‘renovation’ and they don’t know when it will open again. And I am a little to blame.

Before these almost back to back visits to CBF and Landmark and a bit earlier on the amusing Sahitya Akademi bookshop – all within the last one month – I hadn’t visited a bookshop in a while. I have sworn off Flopkart (you read that right) so I have been almost Amazon-dependent. Books come home within a day of ordering them. I have succumbed to the ease of online shopping. So it makes me a bit guilty to see the Nungampakkam Landmark fold last year and now the Spencer Plaza close for ‘renovation.’ My editor P, a former bookseller, and I were talking about this. While our conversations always start with work, they always end with books. He was lamenting the closure of bookshops in the UK. It seems the situation is the same worldwide.

Out of the ashes of closing bookshops, arises my own collection of books. I have taken to piling them up on my work desk now that the bookshelves are groaning under the increasing weight. I haven’t confronted the lack of space problem yet. And it definitely does not stop me from buying books.

At the 90% off Landmark sale, I threw caution to the winds and picked up 17 books! To be fair to me, three books were not for me but for my folks. The rest of the 14 were all mine. To underscore how restrained my list was I’d like to point out that a friend of mine walked away with 98 books from the same sale. Yes it was that kind of a sale. Here’s a picture of my catch. It might keep me occupied for the next year or so.

Books from the Landmark Spencer Plaza sale

Books from the Landmark Spencer Plaza sale

My own private book fest – 1

Lit fests are the flavour of the season. I have been having a quiet book fest of my own. The first was the Chennai Book Fair this year.

The Chennai Book Fair reminded me of the Chennai Trade Fair that I used to go as a child to the Island Grounds each year. With sand in between our toes, cotton candy on our lips and a warning not to get lost in the crowds ringing in our ears, off we went to the Trade Fair. It was an ‘event’ to be looked forward to each year. Many people had much the same idea when visiting the Chennai Book Fair. There were food stalls, loud speakers and crowds. I was better prepared this year than I was last year. Most of the stalls had books in Tamil which I can’t read so it was easy to filter out the stalls that I wanted to visit. I was happy to see people with bags full of books. And even among bookstalls that sold English books, I had to avoid the ubiquitous colouring books, encyclopaedias, dictionaries and educational CDs. Which actually made my job much easier. I went a bit berserk at the first stall which had lots of Indian Writing in English (I got stuck on poetry) but thereafter was more in control. Or so I think. I didn’t all the stalls at the book fair and my arms were already aching from carrying books.

Two bookstalls stood out for me. The first was the unassumingly named Shree Balaji Booksellers. Don’t be fooled by the name – it had one of the best collection of novels and large format books. Last year I got two books from this stall both on Che Guevara and in large format which I thought would cost me a chunk of my salary but they didn’t. They were quite affordable. This year they had a 3 novels for Rs. 200 offer which I could hardly refuse. And a separate shelf of 100 rupee books.

The highlight of this bookshop was that I finally found an original Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was pre-owned by one Timothy Dobson and had some tea stains on the cover. (I imagine a British guy having tea and reading Harry Potter. The bell rings. He gets up to answer in a hurry and spills some tea on the book cover.) But I was nonetheless thrilled. Because it was ‘Philosopher’s Stone,’ which meant a UK edition and not the ubiquitous ‘Sorcerer’s Stone,’ which meant a US edition. The first published Harry Potter editions have become collector’s items but that is not why I wanted to have this book. It’s to complete my incomplete HP collection. No, I don’t have all the HPs in spite of reading all of them. Is that a surprise? Well, when HP started being published in the mid to late 90s, I didn’t collect them thinking that they’d be around forever. Well, they are but I failed to foresee a revision of edition! In a series, unless I can help it, I’d like to have all the books in the same edition. I remember looking long and hard for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in the same edition until I found them in Bangalore’s famous Blossom Book House. So I only have Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (book 3) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (book 2). I finally can add Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (book 1) to that list. The others will have to be sourced patiently.

The other bookstall that quietly impressed me was that of the National Book Trust. I know what you are thinking – how can a government publishing house be interesting? But it was interesting in the way that I used to find unusual books at the college library. These books might not have glossy look of books published by a private/MNC publishing house but they are pushing the envelope in a way that I haven’t seen a private/MNC publishing house do in a while. And the books were beyond reasonably priced. Three books prove my point. Up first is Mirrored Images: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry edited by Rajiva Wijesinha. The only Sri Lankan poetry I have dipped into was Michael Ondaatje’s and that too only in bits and pieces (The Cinnamon Peeler; here’s a poem). I was willing to explore further. This is a perfect collection of poems and also includes an essay on post-colonial Sri Lankan Tamil poetry. Next, Three Score Assamese Poems compiled and translated by D.N. Bezboruah. I have not read Asomiya literature (I mean in translation) so I thought this would be a good place to start. We need more translations from Indian languages to English. (Almost every lit fest talks about this but it is true.) Finally, the book that intrigued me a lot The Hair Timer: An Anthology of Science Fiction Stories by Dinesh Chandra Goswami translated by Amrit Jyoti Mahanta. It made me look again – did I just read that right? A book of Assamese Science Fiction stories translated from Asomiya! Wait, this is unique. I had to read it. I know Assam and the North Eastern states are not well represented in mainstream Indian publishing. So this was an eye-opener. How little we know our own backyard! Thankfully, the situation is slowly changing – Anjum Hasan and Janice Pariat come to mind immediately. I’m just glad that the North East is writing itself into existence. I might have made one bad choice because it was about hot air balloons priced at Rs.35 which made me want to rescue the book first and then read it.

I will be reading these books in the coming days and (maybe) posting about them.

A bouquet of revolutions

The recently silenced Umbrella Revolution made me think about the colourful names given to revolutions. It’s fascinating to notice the names of revolutions that organically emerge from the protests.

Have you noticed how flowers’ and colours’ names have been quite popular? And such consistently themed ‘revolutionary’ names. I will avoid chronology here jump to the 2000s in the area around the Soviet Union and the Balkans when the Colour Revolutions started. Inspired by the Yellow Revolution of the Philippines (1986), a whole rainbow of revolutions exploded: Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003), Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004), Iraq’s Purple Revolution (2005), Kuwait’s Blue Revolution (2005), Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution (2007) and Iran’s Green Revolution (2009). After colour, comes the flowers: Portugal’s Carnation Revolution (1974), Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution (2005), Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution (2010) and Egypt’s Lotus Revolution (2011). There are some oddities too – a few fruits and textures thrown in for variety I suppose – Moldova’s Grape Revolution (2009), the Czech Velvet Revolution (1989) and Belarus’s Jeans Revolution (2006). If I didn’t know better I’d suspect someone who loves flowers, fruits and colours was left in charge of the names of revolutions and they have used colouring books and crayons for inspiration.

The rebellion that never happened

Last year I met my friend C (or A – she has two names) at the Chennai Book Fair and she looked at a rather meager collection of two books in my hand – both on Che Guevara – and asked if I was reliving my teenage rebellion years. I said something in response which I don’t remember now. Her comment made me think; I kept turning it in my head.

Where were my rebellious teenage years? I didn’t have regular teenage years where I could sit around and discuss politics or culture preferably with a smoke or a drink as a Bengali probably does in Calcutta. I was in Madras and barely met anyone one could talk to. My family in Madras is full of Anglophiles but are not politically aware. They’d rather see a popular film than read a book. The only intellectual stimulation was in books. All the people around me in school wanted to do was engineering or medicine not even the ever popular Bengali choices, law or economics. No one I knew wanted to change the world. And I went to a rather liberal school. I have no idea what the conservative ones are like. I met like-minded people only in college at age 17 after I started studying English literature.

I feel strangely drawn to Cuba. I did not know for the longest time ever of the affinity between Latin America and our* Bengal. I heard of Victoria Ocampo and Rabindranath Tagore only recently. And recently, I read about a famous photographer Alex Vadukul on a trip Calcutta commented that Calcutta reminded him of Cuba. Basically, whatever she took for granted as a cultural Bengali*, I chanced upon them much much later.

So getting those books on Che was not reliving my teenage rebellion years; I don’t think my rebellion ever happened. I just find Latin American literature, culture and politics quite interesting and keep reading up about them. I saw The Motorcycle Dairies, and read the book as well. I started learning Spanish in 2008 because I wanted to read Marquez in Spanish. (I had to stop because there was not enough takers for the advanced courses and the centre wouldn’t conduct them until there were enough people. I must resume it with some other centre.)

What I wanted to say, is that she may have had some rather interesting teenage years whereas I missed them out and I’m now forever trying to reclaim them.


* ‘our’ because it is C’s Bengal as much as mine. C is what I call a cultural Bengali. She is Tamilian born in Calcutta and working in Madras. She has since shifted back to Calcutta.

Best reads of 2014

Rita has requested a 5 best reads list for 2014 just she did for books read in 2013. So here it is! You already know the books I read last year, so these are filtered from that list. They are the best because they have stayed with me long after the back cover was closed, Goodreads entry updated and the book returned to the shelf. The list is in the order in which I read the books. I want 2015 to be a year that exceeds my expectations so I am starting off with a list that exceeds Rita’s expectations. These are the nine outstanding reads of 2014.

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

Genre: fiction

Now this is a book I won’t forget in a hurry. Esther Freud is the daughter of painter Lucien Freud and great granddaughter of the Sigmund Freud. But that’s not why I remember the book. It’s the voice that haunts me. The protagonist’s point of view of an adult looking back at her childhood and describing it in piercing psychological detail. A child who is living and observing the nomadic life that she did not choose.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Genre: fiction

My first Ishiguro. I have been hearing about Ishiguro for a long time but somehow never read his works. What I remember best was this cloud of innocence that hung about the book. As if no one wanted to face the ugly world outside. The characters Ruth, Tommy and Kathy are very young and live intense lives in the present. The novel follows the tradition of the British boarding school novel and Science fiction without descending into the mechanics of it all. But is so much more than that. The circumstances under which I read the book makes it rather special for me. Someone I knew and loved passed away this year had gifted me this book. In fact it was the last gift she gave me.

Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Genre: short stories and fiction respectively

I cannot stop raving about these two books. Díaz is my discovery of 2014. I was drawn into the detailed worlds he creates which explore questions of identity and race and what it means to be an outsider on the fringes of American society. This is what I wrote about them earlier last year.

Painting That Red Circle White by Mihir Vatsa

Genre: poetry

Vatsa’s poems have the rare capacity to transport me into a different place. Focusing on the everyday ordinary world, his poems give me insights that are piercing and timeless. The rhythm of his language makes me want to read them again and again. This is the poet’s first collection so I expect fantastic things from him in the future. Two poems here and here will give you an introduction.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

Genre: fiction

I tried reading this book many years back but the second person narrative did not work for me then. Maybe I was not ready for it yet. So after years of owning the book and reading all sorts of literary criticism on it, I finally got around to reading it in 2014. And it blew me away. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is not just one book; it is ten first novels that reflect, refract and play with and against each other as if images in a house of mirrors. It seems to do that with the ideas in my head as well – sparking off so many different thoughts in all directions that in recording one I lost ten others. I want to go back to it and read it again just to reclaim those thoughts. I am so terrified to write about this book.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Genre: fiction

Some of the most exciting writing that I have read lately has been from Africa and its many countries. I had been eyeing We Need New Names since I read the first chapter, which was published as a short story called Hitting Budapest. It has this raw and biting intensity that is so appealing. I am a fan of Bulawayo’s (a pseudonym if you have not guessed it by now) craft. The way she explores inner landscapes through simple and beautiful language had me paralysed. I have written about it here.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Genre: fiction/philosophy

Since If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler proved to be such an eye-opening read, I had to read his other books. Invisible Cities came highly recommended from friends. Of course I had read about it but never got down to reading it. Invisible Cities is not a traditional story. Marco Polo regales Kublai Khan with accounts of hundreds of imaginary cities, which are a reflection of Venice. Each city is less an actual location on a map and more an idea constructed by Marco Polo in his head. It’s Calvino’s hall of mirrors again, this time though through the prism of cities. At first I enjoyed the philosophising a lot but a bit into the book, I started craving for a narrative. Towards the end I become comfortable with the abstractness again. When I stopped questioning what the book was trying to do, that’s when the book opened up to me. I had to abandon the yearning for a traditional story and go with the flow in order to appreciate this book.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre: fiction

I am going to remember 2014 as the year I discovered Calvino and Adichie. Purple Hibiscus has been on my radar for a while. It astounds me that (a) this is Adichie’s first novel and (b) it took such a long time to come to me. Adichie is a master storyteller. I am yet to recover from reading the book. It’s a book that stays on long long after the last page has been turned. Her characters are so well etched, her stories so descriptive and her craft so precise that I am at a loss for words. Purple Hibiscus took my breath away. I haven’t touched another book of fiction after reading it because I want to hold on to that feeling of being under the spell of her writing a bit longer.