Monday, June 26, 2006

Never Again

Too lazy to start a travel blog, so this space proves too inviting. First piece here.

PS: Yeah I know, depressing place to start with but hey, it can only get better, no?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Close encounters with the canine mind

Middle of Nowhere, CA. Huge cars on wide freeways and multi million dollars homes on hills. Homes that I have seen tumbling down during mudslide season but they build them back anyway. I complain about coming here all the time, taking a four hour flight every week to get to the land of the sprawl puts me off but then, watching the sun set over the Santa Monica mountains on a glorious evening (as if there is any other kind in this part of the country) makes me want to fly here all over again. The mountains are always golden here in the golden state except for a few weeks in January when the rains and the Santa Ana winds confers on them a familiar shade of green. Yes, all's well with the world as I set out from the hotel to climb the nearest mountain. I can see the mountain from my room, the foot of the hill can't be too far. Past the wide roads with no pedestrain crossings. Every house has a neat garden or two, and every garage a BMW or two. A cute little gate like in a fairy tale and a sign that reads "Come in and smell the flowers". I hesitate for a moment, read the sign again and walk in. Wildflowers, a waterfall, and incongrous classical statues. I sit down on a low bench and contemplate life.

The Glockenspiel at Marienplatz strikes 12. Mozart plays at the Schönbrunn Palace. Tango at the Brahms bar in Stephansplatz. A Swarowski guitar is playing Joni Micthell's California. The guitar changes into a veena, which someone is playing in the Malibu temple. Outside the temple, the Malibu canyon beckons. I drive through the canyon, and buy puliyodharai at the SV temple. At peace, I sit down to eat in a garden with a fountain. Ah, the heavenly taste of fresh tamarind. I wake up to find a huge dog staring quietly at me. I jump up. The dog keeps staring, it doesn't make a sound. I start sweating. There is no doubt that the dog is waiting for me to move before pouncing on me. I look around for the owner. No such luck. I look plaintively at the dog. I start talking.

"The sign said come in and smell the flowers. I wasn't trespassing or anything."

You weren't smelling the flowers.

"No, I was smelling the flowers and then I fell asleep. I didn't mean to."

Really? I wonder what you were really upto.

"I wasn't doing any harm. I will leave now."

Be my guest.

"I am going to retrace my steps. Just watch, okay?"

Are you blind? I am watching.

"See, I am taking a step back. And another."

I can see dammit. Shut up.

"Just a few more steps and I will be out of your garden. I mean no harm. I am not stealing any flowers."

Of course you weren't. You were sleeping on my bench.

"I am opening the gate now. I will lock it when after I step out. I promise."

Let us see.

Out. Gate locked safely. I make faces at the dog.

"You stupid dog! You thought you were going to get me? Ha Ha! Now we will see what you do."

Enough talk. The dog barks. Finally. It comes running to the gate. It puts up one of its paws around the latch. I watch, shell shocked as the gate swings open. The dog steps out, stops and stares at me. I start talking as I walk backwards. All the way downhill.

Friday, June 16, 2006


On this date every year I promise myself that I would finally finish reading the book before the next anniversary comes around. After nine years of resolutions, I am at page 56. Here's to hoping this year will be the lucky year!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Writing(?) Rant

I am sure most of you will agree with me when I say that in the literary world back home, this phenomenon of young, desi women (both NRIs and RNIs) coming out with books is completely out of control. Almost every other day, one hears of new offerings from these "remarkably talented" women who seem to be blessed with "insights" that escape us mere mortals. They are everywhere - in the newspapers, on TV and worst of all, in bookstores. Ludwig commented here and I can't help agreeing (based on my last vist home) that "it has become vitually impossible to go to a bookstore and browse decently, one is assualted by a phalanx of "new Indian writing" every single time". To be fair, yes, we find male writers too but A) Chetan Bhagat is marketed as Chetan Bhagat, and not as the next Rushdie. And B) Unlike every other female friend I have, every other man I know is not working on a book. So I will risk the generalization/anecdotal evidence charges and restrict this post to the writers of the fairer sex.

Here then, dear reader, I offer you a beginner's guide on how to write one of these books..err..things. Yes, I did read one such thing. Just one, you ask? Well, two to be accurate. All in the interests of patriotism and supporting upcoming writers, I assure you. Not to mention, altruism. I read them because you don't have to. How nice of me!

Begin Internalization
Before I begin, I should really say here that I do not direct these remarks against the miniscule army of talented Indian women writers who I read and admire, but merely against that particular hardcore who seem to equate ignorance with charm, condescension with caring, and stringing together random words with writing.
End Internalization

1. Setting: It was all well in 1995 to write about cross cultural displacement and such but as we all know this is 2006. Everything that's to be written about those things have already been written. So the settings and ideas that you could relate to - upper middle class upbringing, big cities, displacement, existential angst, masturbating civil servants are all out. Instead pick something that you are utterly clueless about - how about a small town in Kerala? Oh wait, that's been done before. How about a small town in Maharashtra? Better still, how about a village in Bihar? Yes, that is it. A village in Bihar is where our story will be set. Does it matter that you have never been to a village, let alone one north of the Vindhyas? Of course not. You are writing a book dammit, not saving the world.

2. Writing: Now that we have a background, time to start writing. In our first chapter we will describe our Bihar village. Don't fret, I have a five point formula on how to do the actual writing. This is what you do:

- Open Websters. If you don't own it, now would be a good time to go buy.
- Find random 50 words that is not used in common speech.
- Write them all down one after another.
- Write two foreign phrases like "c'est la vie" or "sine qua non".
- Insert proper nouns and prepositions in between these 52 words.

Viola, your first chapter is done. Now for the remaining twenty-four.

3. Research: To get to the story, something has to happen in this village. But what? Look West, young woman, look West. There is Bollywood to the rescue.

- Think of all the movies from Sholay to Swades which were set in villages.
- Go borrow all of them from the neighborhood video library / Indian store.
- Watch one a day for the next month.

Your research is complete. You can now proceed to the story. Before we move on, one thing to remember: Make sure the movies you are watching are scripted and made in Bollywood. In other words, don't even dream of watching Pather Panchali. It could destroy your book.

4. Story: Write down all the cliches that you saw in the movies. Add more cliches that you have read in similar books. Insert all of these at appropriate places in the book. Cliche 708, the one about the evil priest at the village temple? Yes. Cliche 2051 - the villain walks around with 35 bodyguards and looks like he just stepped out of a Ram Gopal Verma movie? No, why not? Add it in right now. (Since this is a free guide, I cannot give you a checklist, no. I will soon roll out a paid service which will include a listing of 13201 cliches. Send me an email if you are interested.)

5. Market: Always always always keep the foreign audience in mind. This point can not be stressed enough. Remember this is where the money is. So my dear young woman, now is a good time to sell exotic India. Here's a free checklist of things to put in:

- Elephants
- Monkeys
- Cows
- Priests
- Untouchability
- Abuse
- Dowry
- Child marriage
- Singing in the rain
- Mangoes
- Snakecharmers are OUT. They are not in vogue. Take them out.

6. Action: How much action can happen in a small, Bihar village? Time to move to the cities. Pick five random cities. Set the next five chapters in these five cities. Villains and heroes galore. A Bollywood style finale in which the heroes beat up the villains right before the police arrive. Cut to years later showing happy family in village with kid named after a friend killed by the villain. End.

Please note: All conversations in these cities will have accents. Of course, our heroes from our little Bihar village speak the Queen's English which is why they find these accents very confusing.

7. Title: The key here is to pick something not too obvious. Don't you see people making fun of titles with "spices" and "mangoes" in them? But it cannot be vanilla plain either. The common misconception is to think that the title should have something to do with the book that you just wrote. Not at all. Pick a title that sounds deep and then go back to the book and insert words from the title in every chapter. See, that was easy. (Yeah okay, I do have a list of titles but I am not going to give them away for free. No Sir.)

All done? What are you waiting for? Go publish it. Sell it as an insightful story about the realities of human life, a triumph of the human spirit or some such thing. Feel happy. Rest. Get some sleep. You have contributed to the betterment of society and in the process, mananged to produce a work of art. What more can one ask for?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A day well spent

At the Printers Row Book Fair.

Calvino to Bellow, loads of books were bought. Peace it should have been but that was not to be. At the very last stall, saw Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading out of the corner of my eye. Reached for it, but A~ touched it a millisecond before me. She bought it for $2 while I keep gazing at it with intense longing. Such is life.