The Story So Far

Much has happened since I last posted. I don’t even know where to start. There was is a lot of instability and uncertainty in my life right now.  It’s that time of my life now. Though I definitely know myself much better than I did back when I faced a similar situation. I also know it’s alright. Things are already getting better.

So, basically the company I used to work for has gone and downed its shutters. In retrospect there were warning signs and I didn’t heed them because I was too busy living my life.

At about the same time, we (mom, dad and I) went on a trip to visit my brother who lives in the US. I love travelling but have never traveled that far. I got to discover so many things about myself literally en route.

Usually, I am the stationary nomad having been to only a few places in India – Calcutta (familial duty), Shantiniketan (fun + duty), Pondicherry (learning Spanish, with friends, with family) and Mumbai (work), Goa (academic conference*) and the Andamans (sudden and short weekend getaway). I am so hoping that maybe this trip breaks the travel jinx and who knows probably soon I will be off again! Let me write about the travels in a different post. Rita has been asking me for pics. I have been so jet lagged and generally tired that I haven’t uploaded any yet. You can consider the new header image of New York from the air as a sneak peek. 🙂

The sudden departure of my regular job is I am quite convinced not a bad thing because it gives me a chance to step away and examine what I am doing with my life.  I have decided on a direction but after 14 years of working in a structured environment, this freedom is unsettling. I am the bird outside the cage wondering what I should do with my wings. It’s simple, right? Fly. However the wings are a bit rusty and flying seems a bit alien to me at the moment. My good friend A says out of uncertainty comes creativity and all artists face this uncertainty. I don’t know if I am an artist but it’s good to know I am getting the training for it.

So I am both scared and excited about what happens next. Wish me luck!


* I did not present a paper. I just tagged along with M, who presented a paper.


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

Notes to self

I tend to write in whatever piece of paper or notebook I find and then forget all about it.  The other day I opened a tiny notebook with a kantha-stitched cover, where I note down the bills I have to pay and then score them out once I have paid them, and found written in pencil these lines:

The short story demands to be understood while the novel demands to be embraced. In all these years of back-breaking familiarity with the novel, I have stepped out to make a shy acquaintance with the short story. Hence these enthusiastic dates with the lean, mean and demanding form of fiction.

I thought, not bad! The lines are pretty good. But what was I writing about? A book of short stories yes but which one? Obviously I was reading something inspiring and these lines were meant to start the post for this blog but for the life of me I don’t remember what that book was. I didn’t date the note so I don’t know when it was either! I got the notebook in Shantiniketan so this much I know, the note was written after 2010. I don’t have much of clue beyond this.

Note to self: I must be more organised and at least keep all incomplete notes in one place.

Does this sound familiar? Do you also write anywhere and everywhere and then forget about it?

That reminds me, I think I found an old poem that I wrote in an old bag. I must go retrieve it before someone throws it out.

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.

*Update: Emily Parrish is now Emily Hennessey.

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.

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.