Crocodile Dreams

Sometime mid last month, I had yet another weird dream. I don’t know anyone who has dreams like I do. I must be a psychologist’s delight! Then of course people don’t really share their dreams so I really don’t know. Again, I was puzzled by the end of it.  This is the dream.

A friend or neighbour of mine (not anyone I know in real life) has given me some food in a tiffin box. I am supposed to take it home. I get curious and open it and am shocked. It contains four baby albino crocodiles stuffed with something else. The crocodiles are floating in some yellow-ish white gravy. The neighbour also gives us a laddoo, the only vegetarian item and I cannot help eating it. I go home. My mom asks what did the neighbor give, and I reply, you won’t like it. Then I show her. I don’t remember my mom’s reaction but I am not interested in eating them. My brother says he will try and proceeds to take one.

What on earth does this dream mean? I do have a real-life neighbour who keeps sending food over. But they are snacks and sweets so nothing to be traumatised by. Also, I googled for baby albino crocodiles just to see if I have the description right. Finally, apologies to animal lovers who might be reading this.

Best Reads of 2015

Following yet another tradition and on the request of Rita, I have put down the five best reads of 2015. Technically, that’s seven best reads rather than the usual five that Rita asked. However, I am throwing in two more because I have always had a problem sticking to rules. Here they are in the order I have read them but in no particular order of preference.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)

When reading Americanah I quickly got into the ‘good book zone’ mostly because it was a love story but such a political one. The long forays into African hair obviously was quite political by itself. I didn’t like central female character Ifemelu as much as I loved Obinze. Seriously, it’s like Adichie put all the ideal qualities into Obinze because I am sure no one like him exists in fiction. The one place he falters is when he marries the ‘well-fed houseplant’ (Adichie’s words, not mine) of a wife for no reason than the fact that he was dazed by his new wealth. Through the story of the two lovers (Ifemelu and Obinze), Adichie explores the vastly different post-colonial experiences in the UK and America. Finally though the houseplant and sapling are gently let go and the lovers come together to start their long awaited and much deserved life together in Nigeria.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)

I read Half of a Yellow Sun after Americanah. Does it matter that it was not chronological? There was a certain levity in Americanah that there was no space for in Half of a Yellow Sun. First of all, Half of a Yellow Sun is a historical novel set in Nigeria of the 60s at a time when the Biafran War was on. The Nigerian intellectuals wanted to create Biafra (pronounced Bee-ahfrah) and secede from Nigeria. This led to a civil war and unrest which claimed casualties on both sides. Many countries recognised Biafra but it couldn’t stand up to the military might of Nigeria.

Adichie mined the war part of the story from her own personal family history. The narrator is an outsider, a servant called Ugwu who tells the story of Olanna and Odenigbo. Both are intellectuals and are excited by the creation of this new country. Olanna’s twin sister Kainene and her boyfriend, Richard, chart another kind of journey before, during and after the war. In using twins to tell the story, perhaps Adichie is trying to say that Nigeria and Biafra are twin sisters who might not like each other but are still family. So they must tolerate each other and maybe over time even come to some sort of peace with the other.

To be honest, this book was quite adamant till around page 250 after which it started to yield its secrets and exploded. Half of a Yellow Sun is both a human story as a historical document. A must read if you want to understand politics through literature.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith (fiction)

This is the first novel that left me breathless in 2015. What a brave and audacious write is Ali Smith! The story spans two different centuries and countries – 15th Century Italy and 21st Century England. The concerns are quite contemporary about the fluidity of gender, art and life. The story is narrated by two narrators: in 15th Century Italy, it is Francescho and in 21st Century George who seem to pass through both male and female identities quite easily. The most riveting part of the book is the arrangement. Half the number of copies printed by the publisher Hamish Hamilton has George’s story first and the other half has Francescho’s story first. So it’s a lottery whose story you get to read first. It’s fascinating what this means. Your perception of the novel is going to be driven by what you read first. I read George’s story first. So many levels of duality are explored through this novel. The book made me think so much that I didn’t finally write about it as I would have liked. (The same thing happened to me with Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller the year before last.)

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh (fiction)

Out of It has the distinction of getting me interested in the Palestine issue. I have struggled with understanding such an old and all pervasive issue but it has helped me a lot. You already know what I think of this novel. I am now constantly looking out for more Palestinian writers. I have started reading Raja Shehadeh’s Language of War, Language of Peace (non fiction) and Suhair Hammad’s Born Palestinian Born Black (poetry) thanks to this book.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (fiction)

I have already discussed this in a lot of detail in a separate post. Suffice it to say that it made a deep impression on me. I look forward to more books from this writer.

The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (fiction series)

What can I have to say more than what I have already put down here? I have continued to read McCall Smith after writing that post and I stand by what I wrote. I do dread what would happen if I run out of this series but since I am some distance away from such an emergency, I don’t have to worry about it right now. This series is by far the ‘lightest’ set of books I have read the past year. Light in tone that is but not light in seriousness.

Technically these books are classified as ‘crime fiction’ but that is a bit misleading. Yes, there are crimes in the book but it’s the mundane everyday kind: Think stolen office supplies rather than bank robberies. It’s more about human goodness, kindness and generosity and a certain way of life in a country in the middle of Africa.

One could argue of course that the mysteries of the human spirit does need a detective for them to be discovered. And that detective is Mma Ramotswe.

Burn My Heart by Beverly Naidoo (YA fiction)

I have been hearing about Beverly Naidoo about the same time as I was reading Philip Pullman and J.K Rowling. So that’s quite a while back. However, getting my hands on her books did not happen. Where would I find South African YA lit so many years back? Luckily, after so many years I found a book of hers at the British Council library.

The time is 1951 to 53. Mathew and Mugo, two kids on either side of the colonial divide, forge a tenuous friendship by being thrown by circumstances to spend time together. It’s a difficult time. Not just because of complexities of race and colonialism, it’s also because this is the time of the Mau Mau revolution, the violent uprising before Keyan independence which left so many Kikuyus dead, whether innocent and not.

This is the story of an accident that involves Mathew or bwana kidogo (little master in Swahili) and Mugo the son of Kamau, the man who worked at Mathew’s Dad Grayson’s farm and stables. A small incident burns through the lives of both the boys affecting them in different ways and tearing them up within and apart from each other.

The book made a huge impression on me. I cried at the injustice of Mugo’s life. I cried for most of the second part of the book. How much injustice is there in this world! I am enraged and outraged that so many Mugos and Kamaus have had to endure the wrath of the greedy White Man. Colonialism has so much to answer for. No amount of reparations – if ever considered – can ever amend the lives scattered, lost and warped because of it.

This is my first Beverly Naidoo and she is a formidable writer. This is how YA lit should be – no easy answers, no happy ever afters, just the raw story.

A Stack of Post-its and Cats*

I woke up this morning with a feeling of dread. That’s because I had yet another weird dream.

I had been kidnapped in my dream. The kidnapper was a man. There are other people in the house where I have been taken but I get the feeling they are scared of him too. I certainly was scared. I was shown into a room which already had things in it -a bed, an almirah, a table: I realise it is someone’s home. Probably the kidnapper’s. The door to the room is never locked. I am so afraid that I don’t move from the room. He expected a ransom but none was forthcoming. (Seriously, who would pay ransom for me?) I looked around – there was a single bed with a filthy mattress. I was so scared I didn’t notice. No one spoke in the dream. Not the kidnapper or his women. At right angles to the bed is a long window.

A bit later, my mom joined me in the room. She too I think had been kidnapped but she adjusted quite easily. She touched the kidnapper’s feet which made him gloat. I was so zoned out I followed suit not knowing what was expected of me and I was scared.

Sometime later I find my brother too in the same room. He looks carefree like it’s a holiday. He walks in and sits down on a chair. I feel bad about this kidnapping situation so I try to find some reading material for my brother. I looked under the beds and tables and find cats! Yes cats which are stacked on top of each other like a brick wall or clothes in a closet. They look neat and like they are sleeping. I leave the cats alone. I do manage to find some comics for my brother to read.

I know I have to escape so I want to write a note. (When I think about this, I don’t know why I wanted paper. My post-dream analysis is that I wanted to drop it out of the window so that people can find it and read and rescue us.) So I look high and low in the same dark and dirty room. The next thing I know I am sitting on the grubby bed and a cork writing pad like the kind I used back in school for exams is in front of me and some comics too. But no paper. Suddenly I realise someone is peeping from the door held ajar. It’s a woman. She is silent and expressionless and wearing a grimy sari. She holds out a stack of opened post-its – a thin stack and narrow yellow post-its – like the ones I use to mark pages and quotes in books. I accept it gratefully. I was looking for a bigger piece of paper but this is still paper. So I take it and try to hide it under the cork writing pad. When I look up, she is shaking her head: no. It hits me that it will be found and I’d be in trouble. She is warning me. I take it out and tuck it into my bra. (In hindsight, so close to my heart.) She nods her head: yes, that is a safe place. I wonder how much I would sweat into the post-its and then wouldn’t be able to write on them.

That’s all I remember of the dream. I wake up full of dread.

_________________________________________________

*Note for grammar Nazis: The title is not a misplaced modifier as you will know after reading the post.

Books Read in 2015

Following the tradition of listing books read in 2014, here is what I read all of last year. The list with the book covers is available on my Goodreads page. There seems to be a pattern and I was swinging wildly between two extremes – children’s/YA fiction and serious literary fiction – all year. There is no middle ground. I have neglected poetry a lot so I will make that up this year. Fiction – serious literary TLS kind of books – seems to have dominated my list. I pushed myself to finish 50 books because of the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The last book was finished on the afternoon of December 31st. I might not have read so many books had it not been for it. In 2013 I aimed for 100 and fell short at 77. I learned how many I can manage in a year. So, in reverse order of my reading, here is the list of books read in 2015. What did you read in 2015?

Burn my Heart by Beverly Naidoo (YA fiction)

Eating Air by Pauline Melville (Fiction)

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (Memoir in verse)

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Fiction)

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Fiction)

The Saturday Night School of Beauty by Marsha Mehran (Fiction)

Under the Weather edited by Tony Bradman (YA short stories)

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula (YA fiction)

Miranda Road by Heather Reyes (Fiction)

The Beaten Track by Sarah Menkedick (Travelogue)

Gangsta Granny by David Walliams (YA fiction)

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore (Fiction)

Miyoko & Other Stories by Michelle Tudor (Short stories)

The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Fiction)

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (Children’s fiction)

The White Giraffe/Dolphin Song by Lauren St.John (YA fiction)

The Amazing Racist by Chhimi Tenduf-La (Fiction)

The French Confection by Anthony Horowitz (Children’s fiction)

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Levin (Fiction)

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond (YA fiction)

From Somalia with Love by Na’ima B.Robert (YA fiction)

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells & Won, #1) by Robin Stevens (YA fiction)

The Rumbling Island edited by Zai Whitaker (YA nonfiction)

La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Someone Else’s Life by Kapka Kassabova (Poetry)

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh (Fiction)

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson (Graphic novel)

The Heavy-Petting Zoo by Claire Pollard (Poetry)

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (Fiction)

Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnswami (Picture book)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fiction)

The Talking Bird by Swati Sengupta (Picture book)

Stone Eggs: A Story of Indian Dinosaurs by Helen Rundgren (Picture book)

Tsomo and Momo by Niveditha Subamaniam (Picture book)

Excuse me, Is this India? by Anushka Ravishankar (Picture book)

Hambreelmai’s Loom by Mamang Dai (Picture book)

The Bubblegum Tree by Alexander McCall Smith (YA fiction)

Mr. Bliss by J.R.R Tolkien (Children’s fiction)

How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Fiction)

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond (Fiction)

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Short stories)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fiction)

The Hotel at the End of the World by Parismita Singh (Graphic novel)

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

That’s Happy New Year in Spanish. (I am so out of touch so I thought I can practice a bit here.) So, wish you all a very happy new year 2016! I have a feeling this year will be huge. Now, I don’t know how or why. It’s just a feeling.

A big thank you to those readers who have stayed with me in 2015 and a big, warm and happy welcome to new readers!

Muchos abrazos y besos (many hugs and kisses),

Mo

The Idyllic Charm of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

This past month has been an Alexander McCall Smith December. I just cannot seem to get enough of them. I have read other books too but I have binge read McCall Smith more.

Rita gave me a gift to be used on Amazon and I have been spending most of it on McCall Smith’s books. (Thanks Rita!) I never thought I would get addicted to these books. I have relaxed almost every rule in my rule book to read these books. For e.g.: I had a rule that if I bought books in a trilogy/quartet/series, they should all be in the same edition. I returned Half of a Yellow Sun twice because the book was a movie edition and did not ‘go’ with the other two books. Another was if a book looked old or used in any way, I would return it. But the last two McCall Smiths I got had a broken spine and one even had a British Airways ticket tucked into it. I worried about that for exactly two minutes before I opened it and started reading it.

I did not have any rules about reading books in the order they were published in the series. Each book I think once published is a single entity and while there may be connections between books, there is no compulsion to read the books in order. I read Harry Potter #3 first and then #1 and only then #2. (HP #3 is still my favourite.) After that Rowling started to write tomes and we had to go by the order since they were published quite far apart. Enough of the HP digression.

This addiction to McCall Smith is all quite surprising because I had read the first book in the series way back in 2007 and was not impressed by it. It was unlike any detective book I had read till then. I remember feeling anxious all through the book looking for familiar P.D James-like patterns. I was hugely disappointed and didn’t go near it till this year.

While I didn’t find the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (book #1) that exciting to continue, I keep following the titles that were released year on year. They had such delightful names: ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’, ‘Tea Time for the Traditionally Built’, ‘The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.’ It was of course part McCall Smith himself since I have read this ‘44 Scotland Street’ series and they had all names that stood out as well (E.g.: ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Scones’, ‘The Importance of Being Seven.’) However, I think partly – a big part – was Africa as well – the African twist to the English language – and McCall Smith’s tapping into it. Just like Indian writers use the Indian English language. (The other day I came across ‘Shri Ruby Saloon Gents Beauty Parlour’ and I had to smile.)

The second thing that happened was that I was reading a lot of African literature or books set in Africa since last year from serious books to YA books set in Africa. I was just drawn to them. I saw films set in Africa too: Africa United (2010) about a bunch of underprivileged kids travelling to attend the Football World Cup in South Africa; and The Constant Gardner (2005) which was technically a spy thriller set in Africa; and a few I don’t remember since I forgot to note them down. You could say I was in an Africa frame of mind.

So when I finished reading Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, I had to read another book connected to Africa. However, it was during the Chennai Floods, and while I had a lot of unread books, I didn’t have too many Africa-themed books. While watching gray gloomy days turn into rain-stuffy nights, I felt so restless and helpless that I started reading ‘Tea Time for the Traditionally Built’ (#10), a book I had picked up idly from the library. I was hooked.

After ‘Tea Time’, I had a vague recollection of having picked up some of these No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books during the Book fair held in January 2015. I got them out and read them in whatever order possible. So, I read ‘Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party’ (#12) and ‘In the Company of Cheerful Ladies’ (#6) back to back. I rearranged the events in my head.

Having finished whatever I had in stock, I turned to Amazon. I was finishing them at the rate of one book a day so I need more for my fix. I next read ‘The Full Cupboard of Life’ (#5) and ‘Blue Shoes and Happiness’ (#7) in my frail attempt at chronology. Then I gave up and read ‘The Good Husband of Zebra Drive’ (#8) and ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’ (#4). By now, Amazon it seems has caught up with me. They have increased the prices and I’d rather wait a bit before ordering from them again since I will ordering more than one or two books.

I have seen when things get too much in life, I turn to Alexander McCall Smith. I saw that with La’s Orchestra and now these books. Of course, finding the sun shining and warm in the book was also a consolation since it was invisible for nearly a month or peeped shyly from behind the clouds. Mostly what I really enjoyed was the humour: I was laughing my head off on probably every page.

It’s so reassuring to come back to Precious Ramotswe and her Watson Grace Makutsi as they solve cases usually based on good sense and intuition. Completing the picture is Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé and later husband and also the ‘best mechanic in the whole of Botswana’ Mr. J.L.B Matekoni, whose apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell, are always getting themselves in trouble. Not to speak of Mma Makutsi’s frictions with Charlie and Fanwell. We also follow Mma Makutsi as she finds love in the arms of Mr. Phuti Radiphuti, the owner of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop and confronts her nemesis in the vilest violet in the whole of Botswana, Violet Sephotho who’s only got 50 percent in her final exams at the esteemed Botswana Secretarial College but who can make Mma Makutsi’s life 100 percent hell. Other characters like the irritating and endearing Mma Potokwani, the matron of the Orphan Farm, who’d do anything to get a freebie for the orphans, Dr. and Mrs. Moffat and, a late entrant, the gentle Mr. Polopetsi add to the general goings on at the shared premises of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. The actual drama does not lie so much in the cases that Mma Ramotswe is asked to solve as in the lives of these characters. They are just brilliant.

How come I had missed all of this? How did I come to this series or it came to me so late? I just can’t figure it out. I know we all change but did I change so much since 2007 that what was once boring is so rich and wonderful now? It is a mystery that only Mma Ramotswe can solve.

I have seen the Anthony Minghella-directed TV series based on these books because M used to talk about it. Though I found it a bit devoid of colour – African colours are not pastels by any stretch of the imagination – I enjoyed the series a lot.

Though I haven’t finished reading all the books in the series, it so heartening to know there are more out there. So in 2016, I know what I have to read.

Conflicted

Some months back, during a work-related lunch, I was talking to S, an avid Facebook user and one who lives more in the digital realm than the real one. He has written a novel, which he is currently in the process of finding a publisher. He said something that has played on my mind since then.

So S promotes each of his blog posts on Facebook quite aggressively. He has a FB page that says ‘S, Writer’. He has been invited to give his valued opinion on TV on socially relevant topics and recently was called to speak at a book launch. They were all for the local media and functions. The organisers found him through Facebook. When I added that I have a blog but I don’t promote it on FB, he was surprised. He added that by not advertising my posts on FB, I was losing out on readers and opportunities. I know many people do this and are rewarded with legions of readers or at least visitors out of which some are like-minded souls. He went to the extent of asking me if I was not confident enough of my writing to advertise my posts on FB!

I was aghast and a tad bit angry that this accusation was made at all. Obviously, this guy doesn’t know me. I mean I have worked with him for years but he wouldn’t have known me since all he has seen is my work persona that I put on everyday along with ironed clothes to go to work.

My work persona is very very different from who I am. For starters: I need to dumb down everything I say at work. Or else no one will understand me and things won’t get done. Or worse think that I am showing off. Once I remember I had used one word ‘linger’ to describe how I’d want an animation to go. (‘Let X linger on the screen for Y seconds before…’ or something like this.) And a manager came over to ask why I used ‘linger’ since no one in his team would understand what that was which meant the animation would be interpreted in a different way. So I changed ‘linger’ but the memory of it lingered for years.

I wouldn’t have survived so long if I didn’t have a work persona to buffer me in the rough and tough world of work. I don’t know about others but I cannot be myself at work.

Since I am flawed and human, there are leakages. Sometimes my real persona comes through and then it causes a lot of confusion. For instance, in one of my previous workplaces, someone asked me to contribute an article for the office blog. Not keen on spending whatever little free time I had writing for the office blog, I sent over an old post from this blog. I was so sure no one would read it. I was wrong. People did read it and moreover were surprised that I had written it. A top boss suddenly came over to say hello. The article was mentioned during my annual performance review. Of course, it was unfavorably compared to my work performance. *face palm* Such leakages aside, most people at work would have seen only my work persona.

I have always had this division for as long as I can remember. I was one person in school and another at home. Years back when my classmate met my cousin, they couldn’t decide whether I was the silent type or the talkative one. Which understandably flummoxed both of them. Back then, I didn’t even know that I was so conflicted.

Coming back to the situation. Sipping on my mojito and without missing a beat, I told him it’s not a lack of confidence rather the opposite. I am so confident that I don’t need Facebook to draw readers to my blog. Which kind of put a stop to the discussion.

There are somethings I like to do with my blog and some, I don’t. I don’t like monetising the blog or promoting it on Facebook. I don’t mind collaborating as long as I retain my creative freedom.

I am not comfortable sharing my blog posts on FB because it has become full with more work people than friends. Though there are some friends who pull me back from time to time. Also, I feel that I am able to express myself better in a long-drawn out post like this one than in an FB post. Those who comment on FB might not understand and those who do understand, understandably stay away. It’s the same work/real persona conflict played out in social media. I don’t like conflict at all so most of the time I shut up on FB and open up on my blog.

When I look back at what I said in the heat of the moment, I realise that it is true. You might ask me what gives me this confidence to retort back the way I did. I have only a handful of (loyal) readers, no speaking assignments at functions, no TV shows or an FB page or even a written novel. But I still feel I am better off. I have the freedom to be myself. I don’t want to compromise that for some numbers on the stats counter and TV shows and speaking assignments. And if they do come, it will be because of my real persona and not something I am forced to be for a short while.