Read The Wor(l)d

This is a long overdue post. On April 23rd 2015 that is last year I was asked to speak as a reader (yayyy!) on World Book Day at the British Council. I wanted to post my speech soon after but I did not feel ready to share it. Today while hunting for something else, I came across the printout of this speech and I read it again. It felt powerful. I am so happy I could write something that more than a year on has the same feel that I aimed for. That gives me hope.

Each speaker had to speak for 4 to 5 minutes before the discussion on books and reading. This is what I wrote in preparation but I forgot most of it while actually holding the mic! (Yes, that happens) I had the printout of my speech in my hand but since it was a speech so I did not want to break eye contact with the audience to look at the paper. In spite of that whatever I wanted to convey was conveyed. I know this because by the end of my speech the two or three genial young-at-heart British ladies sitting in the first row were nodding their head vigorously. 🙂

Here we go:

When I was eight, I fell sick with three different childhood illnesses in one year – mumps, measles, and chicken pox. My parents’ way of helping me heal –apart from the obvious medical attention – was to give me books. Invariably they were fairy tales. They had wonderful water colour illustrations which I can even now picture in my mind’s eye. I grew up in the 80s, so my reading rite of passage took me through Tintin, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys. I did not have the wonderful books that Tulika, Tara and Duckbill nowadays publish. (Something that I try to remedy at every opportunity.) I don’t need to tell you that these were all books that I could hold in my hand. Ebooks hadn’t been born back then.

I love reading so much that I studied English literature in college. I continued to read books build up my own collection as I started working and earning and therefore spending on books that I would like to read.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime in the last five years, the way we read a book has changed. Thanks largely to the rise of ebooks and devices which can hold them.

Even say in 2005, if anyone had told me that I would read the poems of D.H Lawrence or War and Peace on my mobile phone, I’d have laughed. Mobile phones had a different function – talking to and keeping in touch with people. Books were heavy, solid, comforting objects meant for holding and reading. They still are and I still read them. It’s just the way we interact with them now – sometimes through another device – the tablet or the mobile phone.

To illustrate, let me recount an incident. Last month, I attended the relaunch of the British Council reading club. One of the ice-breaker questions I remember vividly was ‘Have you read War and Peace?’ I hadn’t. I did find one person who did. By the end of the meeting, I suddenly wanted to read War and Peace. So what do you think I did? Rush to a library? No. Rush to the classics section of the nearest bookshop? No. Order an edition of War and Peace from an online bookshop? No. I downloaded a free edition of War and Peace (the Maud translation, btw) on Kindle app on my mobile phone. I started but haven’t finished reading it but it’s comforting to know it’s there to be read anytime. Just like a leaving a bookmark in my physical book to continue later.

One of the changes as a reader that I had to confront has been the format. Earlier I had to worry about only two formats – the hardback and the paperback. But that was easy – it was always a paperback because of its affordability. Hardback only when there was no option. I remember the latter Harry Potter books were all hardbacks. Now I have to think about the device – a reading app or Kindle; the format – PDF, epub, mobi; and compatibility – will this app open that file?; and if compatibility is a problem, how to solve it?

I will not go into the many reading apps, softwares, formats, websites available which have their own library of books. Those are external details. The book or to be specific – what it’s made of – the story that makes us learn something about ourselves or the world around us – is still unchanged. The book is not dead. Those who love reading find it through libraries, sometimes through ebooks or digital books. We humans will always need a good story. As Philip Pullman said, ‘We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them’. And as long as we need a story, books will continue to exist. How they come to us – now that may be subject to change.

Travels in Iyer-land

I just finished reading this lovely article by Pico Iyer, another writer that I haven’t explored but is there in the back of my mind like Paul Theroux. A has been recommending his writing to me for ages and I have consistently ignored it. Ignored is a harsh word. I’d rather say hoarded it. I have no excuse – not those piles of unread books, not the stretched days I work, definitely not the sporadic blogging, or my Book Club – to blame for not reading Video Nights in Kathmandu or his other books.

Here’s an insight that makes me realise that I’ve always known it but never really thought too much about it. It takes a writer to put together a nuance like this.

What you don’t know, will never know, will always be more involving than what you can explain: it is the fundamental principle of love and of religion.

Why suddenly Pico Iyer you might ask? He has been around for ages. Well, it started at lunch. I came across this beautiful and wise conversation between Pico Iyer and the interviewer Peter Barakan on NHK World, the TV channel from Japan (It’s a free channel in India.) They were sitting on tatami mats and talking so eloquently about the stillness in the Japanese way of life which is what drew Iyer to Japan. If I remember right, he says, ‘the stillness between words’. That blew my mind away. I decided that must start reading Iyer’s work immediately. What better way to start than to post about it first?

Sigh! And now I get back to work.

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.

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.

My, oh my, what a wonderful day

I have to be honest I am a bit high as I write this. You know how sometimes out of the blue things happen which you never ever expect even in your day dreams? Yeah, that’s what happened. So Selma Dabbagh whose book ‘Out of It’ I wrote about in this post has read my review and said nice things about it as well as the reader (that would be me). Now tell me, wouldn’t you be high too if this happened to you?

Thanks so much Selma Dabbagh! You can read her lovely comment in the About page. You might have to scroll a bit. Feeling lazy? Here’s a screenshot.

Selma Dabbagh