Category Archives: My Soulmate Is A Book

Aren’t You Glad I’m Not Carrie?

I tell people being an only child made me a reader because there was nothing much for a kid in 80s to do. I tell them I grew up in an environment surrounded by books so it was inevitable I’d become a reader. I say being a writer is a subset of being a reader and I’m even more voracious than I’m prolific. But the truth is, like the category of this post is called, my soulmate truly is a book. Books have appeared, like guardian angels or fairy godmothers (whichever mythical being you like better) in my life at opportune times with appropriate messages. People and situations now feel like illustrations of whatever the books I’m reading are trying to teach me.

A fortnight ago, Vivek Jejuja put out a call asking for people with whom to discuss Stephen King’s Carrie. I haven’t been a fan of Stephen King for a number of reasons I’ll explain later. But I have been dying for a book conversation and I have been wanting an inroad to get to know the magnificent Vivekisms (who is already a good friend, only he didn’t know it yet). So I bought the book.

In the same week, an old school classmate called to tell me about a high school reunion. These two events are significant but only if you know what the book is about. So if you haven’t read the book and plan to, here’s your SPOILER ALERT.

I was far from being the popular kid in school. By far I mean, the exact opposite. I know a lot of people now who lament that nobody knew them in school. That’s really not the worst thing to happen to a child. The worst thing to happen to a child is other children who know you but not as someone they want to be nice to.

I am not going to lament the tortures I suffered in classrooms. I know that children have no perspective on the future or morals. I know a lot of them grew up to be pretty decent adults. And like the characters in ‘Carrie’, many of them probably didn’t even realise what was happening and if they’d thought about it, they’d be as remorseful. The big problem with bullying and harassment is that they look disproportionately different depending on which side of the fence you’re standing on.

Last year I was added to a school Whatsapp group and I had a firsthand experience of why this is a groanworthy ordeal for us digi-nerds. My phone was pinging at all hours of the day and night with 768 notifications from people from all over the world, the messages ranging from “HELLO GM! Sooo great to see everyone here!” to selfies to “Who’s here? Oh him!” I bore well with it for 2 days, setting it on mute even as it annoyed me. I am one of those people who only relaxes when all notifications have been cleared, unread emails/messages read and responded to and so on. Then one more member was added and the string of “Hi!”, “What’s up with you?”s began before he asked the inevitable “Who else is already here?” (honestly, can 37 year olds not figure out how to go to the Members list on a Whatapp group?). I groaned at the slew of repeat introductions, repeat-repeats and interruptions that would follow. Someone said “Ramya’s here too.” To which he responded,

“What? Buck-teeth Ramya?”

I stayed on the group another hour, long enough to read people’s sniggers, someone else say, “Dude, she’s here and can read your message” and his “haha, just kidding” followed by awkward silence on a group that had been pinging nonstop for 2 days. I shouldn’t have wasted even that hour before I took myself off the group.

I have learnt that people have zero empathy. I have learnt that people like to play ‘My woes are worse than yours’ which is the death of that thing called empathy. And I can tell that that boy (if I think of him as a man, it will make thinking about the human race too sad) doesn’t even think he did anything wrong. Who is laughing at a joke about somebody’s bad teeth? Everybody. Because this is not about bad teeth, body shaming or any of those things. It’s about getting used to treating people one way and logic, empathy or even human fairness be damned. It’s about robbing a person of who they want to be and forcing them into an unpleasant role for your own entertainment.

I’ve been troubled ever since I received the invitation to the school reunion, not wanting to seem petulant, wanting to be that ‘good sport’. But I realised as I read Carrie, that this was never going to change. People who saw me a certain way as children, are never going to see me differently. They will react badly if I try to get them to do so. High school reunions are for those who were cool in school. But if their lives continue to be so wonderful, why do need to go back to their childhood/adolescent selves? And how are they going to behave in order to fulfil that need?

chool was possibly the worst time of my life and that’s counting abusive relationships, dirty politics at work, unemployment and people I know dying. I had agency in all those cases, even if only over how I could respond. I had none in those horrible years between 3 and 16. I have no desire to relive it.

I do not have Carrie’s powers and that’s a good thing for the world. It’s time life started being things that were good for me too. So on Saturday, I chose not to go to the school reunion and spent it reading Carrie instead. Thank you, Vivek, for two new friends – you and a book. 😊

Here’s my review of the book:

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CarrieCarrie by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been skeptical about Stephen King for over a decade now, mostly because I read ‘Misery’ at 20 during a breakup and just when I was working to be a writer. Years later, I read ‘Dreamcatcher’ which even King fans tell me is not one of his good ones. A friend asked me to read ‘Carrie’ so I could discuss it with him, so I decided to give King novels another chance. I’m glad I did.

Much has been made about the first period experience, which triggers off the plot of this story. Stephen King does a commendable job, as a male writer, of highlighting girl/women’s trauma. Parts of it still had me thinking, “No, that’s not what a period feels like. A man obviously wrote this.”

For me, the more interesting parts were the rabid religious beliefs and the effects of toxic/abusive upbringing on a child. What set this story apart for me is that it tells of such a child who did rebel and break out of it (even if, with disastrous results).

The bullying aspect also felt realistic, not painting the bullies as bad people but just people caught up in things that they don’t think about and regret later.

And finally, there was the semi-epistolary narrative (the story switches between excerpts of news reports and actual plot). It felt like a bit too much emphasis on Carrie, the WEIRD one. But perhaps the novel wouldn’t have been as impactful without it.

I can see why Stephen King is considered one of the best popular fiction writers of out times. And I definitely intend to check out his other books now.

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BOOK Review: Looking For Alaska – John Green

Looking for AlaskaLooking for Alaska by John Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first John Green was ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ which I came to reluctantly, assuming it would be soppy and shoddily written. I was wrong. Falling in love with that book led me to rush out and buy ‘Paper Towns‘. And that was a HUGE letdown (with a great title). I also bought ‘Looking for Alaska‘ but after ‘Paper Towns‘, I put it away, my taste for John Green’s neurotic teenagers soured.

I picked it up again this week, meaning to clear my unread shelf and we’re back in love. Just like ‘Paper Towns‘, the heroine of this novel is self-absorbed, flaky, impulsive and just plain bad for you. But unlike in that one, she’s glorified a little less and the protagonists are a bit more self-aware of how destructive she is for them.

The ending (or should I call it the middle, since the book is roughly split into Before, During and After) is a shock in a good way because it makes you realise just how much you care about the characters. The lines are funny and then tragic but always poignant in that teenage way where everything is intense but also true. The plot transitions smoothly too even if it takes awhile to get started.

John Green’s writing is warm and intimate and makes you feel close to the situations and characters even if you don’t like them or relate to them much.

I don’t know what went wrong with ‘Paper Towns‘ but ‘Looking for Alaska‘ gets it right in all the ways that ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ did. If you liked the latter, you’ll definitely like this one. I’d even go so far to say this is the better book, because it manages to touch you without all the cancer melodrama of TFIOS. Skip ‘Paper Towns‘, move right on to Alaska and the stars.

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Where I bitch about things that hurt and find my way back…to a good book

I bought a Kindle earlier this year, a very late purchase I know for a voracious reader like me. I guess I still think of gadgets as luxuries and I am kind of spartan in my head. The first thing I ever saved up my pocket money for, was a book, an Archie comic double digest. A book is also the first thing I ever earned. After I began working, I made the transition into buying brand new books, awarding myself that luxury. And I’ve been rather undisciplined after that, allowing myself this one vice of buying books freely without regard to cost, storage space (a VERY BIG factor in Mumbai) or time to read. It’s one of the reasons I shied away from buying an eReader for this long. What would I do of the heaving shelves of as yet unread books?

When I finally bought the Kindle, I vowed that I would be very prudent in my ebook purchases and only buy books that I was going to read immediately and even then, only buy a new book after I’d completed an older one. My first buy was a book that I fell instantly in love with and it pulled me back into reading. Yes, I’ve never gone for long without a book but it’s such a deeply ingrained relationship now that it goes with the taking for granted, the occasional neglect, the other priorities taking over aspects.

Right after I finished Gone Girl, I decided to finally give in to the Game of Thrones mania. When you’ve had a relationship with books and reading as deeply as I have, you take every step with caution. A book can and has changed my life so I only let one in with prudence. I am so sorry to say that this was a mistake.

I have been struggling with the books (I bought the entire collection – I may be prudent but I don’t do half measures) right after I finished the excerpt and began nearing end of Book 1.Game of Thones. I put it down to it being a distant genre. Fantasy and Medieval fiction have never felt like my own universes the way social Sci-fi, Literary fiction, Modern women’s fiction and Children’s fiction have. At the end of book 1, I went off to read other things and returned, hoping things would be  better. Book 2.A Clash of Kings was no better; worse if anything. I struggled and finally allowed myself to slash through the pages (no, not really but the page-turning command on a Kindle feels a bit like a finger slash) barely reading the words. I just about made it and plowed on to Book 3.A Storm of Swords. All I can say about the book is several oppressive characters and situations have ended.

I was midway through Book 4.A Feast for Crows last night when I realised it. I’d been having nightmares for the past few weeks. Well, perhaps not nightmares in the conventional sense of monsters etc. but dreams and sleeptime thoughts that were deeply unpleasant and disturbing. I’ve been waking up feeling very drained and unhappy. The last thing I read or watch or listen to at night usually carries through into my sleep and for weeks now, I’ve had blood-soaked images of rape, pillaging, torture, murder and genocide. I give up. I’m done with this wretched story.

More than once I’ve tossed and turned and had to switch on the light to get a drink of water or just lie awake, reading or listening to music, unable to sleep. Last night, I put it aside and picked up a fresh book (something I very rarely do at 3 in the morning). It’s an Indian author I picked up at one of my book binges before the Kindle purchase. Two chapters in I was hooked and already my mind in that peaceful place where a good story can lull me to sleep.

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Image via Unsplash/Patrick Tomasso

I’ve woken up not just feeling better but also with the insight that I need to get up from bed slower in the mornings. Low blood pressure hits me most days and I’m just realising this. So I lay staring at the ceiling for a good ten minutes before getting up and the day has only been getting better.

I realise this may sound odd to some people but a book really is that important. Especially when it plays the role that human relationships usually do, why would I associate with a book that is brutal and seems to revel in it? I’ve already been in a relationship with a monster like that and I was lucky to get out. I don’t need a book version of the same thing. So no more GoT for me.

I got to thinking about this relationship that I have with stories and books.

When I was 20, I was reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I enjoyed the rabid revolutionary ideas and her powerful words that would pour into my head, as I was sandwiched between rush hour train commuters on my way to and from work (my first job). There was a distinct moment when I remember thinking, this isn’t good for me but it feels so good. I had the good sense to walk away from the book midway (don’t ask why I never have the good sense to do that in relationships). I’ve never regretted it. And that’s why when I hear Ayn Rand fans raving, I must look at them with the rueful knowing of someone who was intoxicated but escaped.

I also quit 50 Shades of Grey after two books but that was different. I was enraged, rather than enthralled. Luckily Adi pointed out that I might be reacting to the bad writing and not to the genre itself. I had to test out that idea so I went ahead and devoured several other pieces of erotic writing, including but not limited to S&M. I found a new area of interest and I even ended up conducting a workshop on Erotica Writing.

I shivered through The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Admittedly the title hooked me because my own first tattoo was about three years old then and I felt like I was answering to the name of that girl. The story horrified me but I completed it, it was just such good writing. I even sat through the Swedish version of the film. But I decided, I couldn’t palate the ruthless rape, murder descriptions so I have never read the other two even though both my parents have and love them.

I guess my soulmate truly is the world of books and stories. The books I’m reading shape my mood, my attitude and even my aspirations. I cannot afford to be imprudent. I have to be as cautious about what I put into my mind as I am about my body.

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My Prince Charming Is A Book

Earlier this month, I conducted a workshop on Erotica Writing. I’ve explained how and why I decided that I wanted to write more naturally and with less abashment about sex and sexuality. But my journey with ‘real’ erotica reading probably began with 50 Shades of Grey, a story that I had a vein-bursting reaction to. When a friend suggested that I was probably responding to the bad writing rather than the genre itself, I decided to explore the theory. And sure enough, I ran right into Anais Nin and fell in love with her writing, her mischief and her spirit.

I’ve read other stories since then, picking them along the way along with my usual diverse fare of children’s fiction, chicklit, literary fiction, nonfiction, personal blogs, graphic novels, bestsellers and classics. But since the workshop, I decided that I wanted to be more up-to-date on the Erotica genre. And I set out to build myself a collection of excellent works in the field.

In Too DeepI ordered a whole bunch of books which included classics, once banned books and a single one from a recent Top Erotica Reads list. This is the one I started with, first, figuring I needed to get with it as soon as possible. In Too Deep by Portia Da Costa turned out to be such a disappointment that I gave it up midway, disgusted.

I was so disheartened I might have given up the genre and indeed, whatever I had started with the first workshop too. What good luck that I had bought other books too, which I felt compelled to finish. And I picked the next one up with a heavy heart. Once again, to my great fortune, it turned out to be this one.

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Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence

For one, I’ve been very taken in by this look — the finger curls, the asymmetric, tight bob and the red lipstick. It can’t have escaped your notice, my look in the past few months. Then I opened the book and began reading. And within a few words, I was transported into that world of marvelling at how a phrase could be turned. I’ve been reading so much garbage lately that I keep forgetting how a book can be — should be — art.

And as for erotica? That really is the difference between erotica and porn, isn’t it? Erotica, like good sex, makes you fall a little in love. With yourself, with an idea, with the universe that makes it all possible. Bear witness to these lines:

“The two girls, therefore were from an early age not the least daunted by either art or ideal politics. It was their natural atmosphere. They were at once cosmopolitan and provincial, with the cosmopolitan provincialism of art that goes with pure social ideals.”

True, a passage like this makes me go tingly because I have to ponder each word and not everyone gets off on that. But listen to this:

“The arguments, the discussions were the great thing: the love-making and connexion were only a sort of primitive reversion and a bit of an anti-climax. One was less in love with the boy afterwards, and a little inclined to hate him, as if he had trespassed on one’s privacy and inner freedom.”

OH MY GOD, I thought, that is what I was trying to say, so very inarticulately in my spoken word performance titled Baby Invisible.

And that’s when it struck me. Sex is at once a basal and a higher order experience. It is spirituality and divine graces available to every single life form on Earth. It changes or should change something inside you, not just in muscles and blood vessels, but in the way you feel and think. Things should go bump and creak inside you when you experience sex, either in action or in thought, via fantasy or reading. Good sex and good writing should both leave you moved and forever changed in ways that you spend the rest of your life, learning to be at peace with. That is what life is about it, isn’t it? Constant change and our trying to find our balance with every new shift and turn. Shake my mind, my ideologies with even a tenth of the force with which you can jar my body and I promise you the body and everything that’s in it, will follow.

We seem to be in an era of terrible writing and godawful things being done in the name of sex. That a book like 50 Shades of Grey attained the status it did, is testimony to the fact that most of our world has lost access to the true magic of sex.

But I take heart in the thought that this world, a vast, big library also contains works such as these whose words seduce me (rather than throw me over their shoulder and drag me into the woods, in the style of In Too Deep or 50 Shades) and grow my senses.

My Prince Charming truly, is a book.

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* If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

My First Publisher

Performing at LitCon 2015, Mithibai college

Tuesday was really special. I had a chance to perform at Mithibai college’s LitCon festival. The alma mater makes everything a magical experience. Even though the building has changed beyond recognition, it has echoes of my adolescent self, climbing out of windows, sneaking vada-paos into chemistry labs, reading books hidden inside journals during class. I had a complete college experience, from landmark conversations with strangers to friendships with the kind of people that I’d never have known otherwise, an experience that only enriches you.

I never did anything of note in the six years. But when I was in my second year, groaning and hating every bit of it, something happened. In typical teenage carelessness, I had neglected to thoroughly research my choices. B.Sc. in Mumbai university required students to pick a combination of three subjects in first year, two from those in second year and then one from that in third year (which would be the major). The only science subject I could tolerate was mathematics and that was available in only two combinations. Both combinations had physics, a subject that I loathed even more than I liked mathematics. These two combinations were PCM (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics) and PMS (Physics, Mathematics, Statistics). I didn’t feel like applying my brain enough to understanding why Mathematics and Statistics were different so I picked PCM. It wasn’t till the start of second year that I discovered I couldn’t drop Physics, as I had intended. Apparently the only second year combinations available to me were PM and PC. If I had taken PMS, I could have opted for MS but my harebrained choice had pushed me into having Physics for one extra year.

I coasted through the entire year, feeling bleak and utterly defeated. Physics laboratory really was the worst because I couldn’t bunk it the way I could bunk class. And my poor work was even more glaringly obvious there than in the crowded classroom. I found refuge in my rough journal.

The rough journal was a college given volume, bigger than the typical school notebook and smaller than registers. It was hardbound and made of thick, good quality paper. The icing on the cake was that every page was ruled on one side and plain on the other. Even in those days, I had an eye for good stationery. It enticed me so much, I’d spend the dreaded laboratory hours doodling and falling back into a habit I had thought I’d drummed out of my system since it was deemed useless for my future — writing. I wrote about what I felt, I unentangled the things I saw around me that I had nobody to talk to about and I poured the alternate life I could only dream of, into words in that rough journal.

At the end of every lab session, we were supposed to take our books to the teacher and have her sign off on our work. I’d finish my writing just in time to hear the bell go, frantically copy someone else’s readings and get it signed by the teacher.

One day a lady stopped me in the corridor. I knew her only as an English teacher. I had never been in her class but she was friends with my Physics teacher and I had seen her visit the laboratory several times.

“Did you know there is a college magazine?” she began without preamble. And then she asked me if I’d like to write for it.

I gaped. No one had ever asked me that before. I was a science student, after all. My brain was supposed to be filled with formulae and equations, not stories and words. And there was a sizable Literature fraternity for such activities. Why would anyone even care about what I wrote?

“Can you show me something you’ve written?” she asked, her eyes keenly searching mine.

I gulped guiltily, thinking of the nonsense I spent my laboratory time on, instead of the experiments I was supposed to be doing. Then I told her, I’d bring her something to see.

The next day, I carried my poetry book. This was a journal I had been maintaining since I was 7 and first toyed around with words on paper. I’d painstakingly copy whatever ‘poem’ I had written during recess or whenever, in my best handwriting into it. It was covered with a shiny red sheet of wrapping paper with silver stars on it. Once, I had thought it was marvelous and wanted to use it only for this book. When I became a teenager, it started to look pathetic and silly so I put it away and stopped writing. I hadn’t touched the book in years.

“Can I go through it and give it back to you at the end of the day?” she asked.

I paused, a part of me reluctant to even show her that poor little book. But then, I decided, it was time to let it die out. Writing got me into trouble, gave me all kinds of dreams that made reality seem unbearable. I really ought to be studying and concentrating on my lab work. It was time to let that red register go.

“Take it,” I told her, “You can keep it.”

She looked very, very surprised as she took the book.

“I’ll give it back to you on the weekend,” she promised.

I didn’t think any more of it. The whole incident seemed so surreal.

But on Monday, she came looking for me. I was surprised that she even knew my classroom. Remember the science stream had over a dozen subjects and each classroom had at least 70 students. And that was just the science degree students, not counting the other streams and the junior college kids. But in that buzzing, bustling crowd of a college, she found me.

“I spent all weekend reading it,” she said, “It was lovely. I could see the journey of a little girl growing up to be a young woman. And I got this for you.”

And she gave me a book. It was Antonie St.Exupery’s ‘The Little Prince’ and it was inscribed, “Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams die, life like a broken winged bird, cannot fly”.

I still remember the scene as clearly as if it happened just a day ago and not 17 years in my past. This teacher who didn’t know me, had never taught me, standing there in a cream coloured saree and curly hair all around her face. She was holding out my red register of poems but she was holding it between both her hands with a kind of respect, a gesture I had never seen anyone accord to something I had written. Many, many years later, Manisha Lakhe would tell me,

“Treat your notebooks with respect and regard. They are the tools of your trade.”

And I would think back to this moment, to this teacher who showed me how I should treat my writing.

One of my poems was published in the college magazine that year, a non-rhyming list piece titled ‘Unanswered Questions’. The next year another poem ran with my name too.

Four years later, as a postgraduate student in another college, I would help revive a dead college magazine, be a member of its editorial committee, propose and run a new column. And a year after I finished my education, I would set up a blog that went on to change my career, my identity and my life. But it all started with one red register covered in childish handwriting. And one teacher who believed in a dream that I didn’t even know I had. She was my first publisher, the first person to call me a writer.

All these years later, I had a chance to share that story on stage. There were dozens of students in the auditorium, smarter, more aware and mature than I remember myself being. And in the midst of all of them, was the head of the department, Mrs.Suma Narayana, the lady who first asked me if I’d like to write.

I had a chance to perform three of my favorite pieces — The Dating Thing, Flamingos and Paper Plane. Thank you, Isha, for giving me a chance to bring my words back here.

BOOK: A Pinch Of Nutmeg – Christine Ambrosius

It has been awhile since I posted a book review but this one was such a fabulous read, I wanted to bookmark it here.

Pinch of Nutmeg, APinch of Nutmeg, A by Christine Ambrosius

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let me start by saying I loved this book and I’m neither a foodie nor an enthusiastic cook or traveller!

Jake’s adventurous life has humble beginnings, as a little helper to his grandmother who assists in the kitchen of a duke in medieval England. He learns about vegetables and meats and cooking as he runs errands and even as his grandmother dies suddenly. His talent attracts several mentors, friends but even more enemies and he finds himself thrown into new situation after foreign kitchen. Jake moves from England to Italy to Turkey to France. Every journey, every place brings him new learnings about flavours, vegetables and cooking techniques. He earns to haggle with traders, fend off thieving merchants, avoid politicking courtiers and manipulative mentors. He also finds love, loses it, embraces new cultures and creates many culinary delights.

This book will interest anyone who loves cooking because of its numerous descriptions of dishes ranging from the simple to the spectacular. It’s also a great look at European history via the lens of food. And finally, it’s just a really great novel. It was a lot longer than I usually have the patience for, but somehow it carried me through.

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W is for Writer’s Block

WI wrote this for a prompt exercise where the theme was horror. This is my first attempt at a scare-story. Tell me what you think. Too obscure? Not chilling enough? In today’s A to Z Challenge we look at a writer’s worst fear, W is for Writer’s Block.

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W is for Writer’s Block

I had woken up that night. The cigarette ashes near my bed should have been indication enough. I remember it clearly. But the memory is behind my eyes. You’re going to need to see the evidence in the form of those ashy streaks. What’s the point? You aren’t even listening, anyway. You don’t know how to. You can’t. Did I awaken in a cold sweat? A dull feeling in the pit of my stomach? No, no. I just opened my eyes and there the world was, and I was awake. It happens often enough.

I used to lie awake for nights on end. I’ve spent hours watching fragile, wispy thoughts dance about. It’s an ugly thing they do, solidify into words. Nasty buggers they become then, rattling about inside your head. I used to wonder how coin slot machines felt. You know the ones that have a zillion, hard colourful balls inside them that whir around when you put in the coin? And if you’re lucky, one drops into the slot. You pop it into your mouth and stroll away, never even knowing how glad the machine is to see you go, how it envies your nonchalance. You’re ingesting, masticating, devouring what it struggles to vomit, shit, eject out.

Listen to me. (Nobody does, of course, but me). I’m so verbose. Perhaps I should start taking care of my words, even if I’m the only listening. But it’s so hard, so hard to. HRMPH. Say it again. It’s hard. I feel like there’s…I have diarrhea and I can’t shit it out. It’s clogged inside my entire body, this diarrhea of words. Better. Time to go out. Get some cigs.

I don’t even think about what to carry anymore. The notebook in my pocket is as good as a bankroll. I pat it to check it’s still got enough pages. I step out, and as usual, the memory of that first morning floods me. It’s always first morning now, no matter how many I’ve had since then. It’s gotten so I notice things I should have but didn’t, on the first morning. Infinite rewind.

No scrawls on the walls. Paan stains galore and something that always looks like shit smeared on the second last step. The signboard at the gate is missing. No scratches in the paint, either; only peeling in broad strips. There is a pile of sacks of cement near the wall, where it’s broken. They’re covered in the uniform grey that creeps out of tears in the sack fabric. But no names, no penmarks visible. How did I never catch that? Because I automatically avoid construction sites and materials, that’s why. They make me sneeze. This pile is about ten feet away and I could have read the black or red letters that usually mark such sacks. But I never noticed. My mind wears a breathing mask to thoughts my body does not like.

The road is busy as always. But the sounds never fail to shock me. The machine noises are all there – cars moving, road repair machines whirring. And there’s a steady hum underlying it all – human breathing. Human beings breathe real loudly, did you know? But no voices. Well, there is an occasional gasp and plenty of sneezes. They don’t know the word ‘pollution’ but they suffer it anyway.

I’m nearly at the cigarette shop at the end of the road now. The smokers mill around near it. A lady steps up through a gap. The shopkeeper hands her a loaf of packed bread. She puts down a lemon on the tiny counter. He catches it just before it rolls off and drops it into a jar behind him. I can see it also has a bunch of leaves, spinach maybe and a green chilli or two. It bounces off the top of a tomato and settles on the leaves. He shuts the jar and turns back.

I step up to him and he already knows which brand I want. He holds out the packet. The cigarette pack shows a badly scanned image of a bare-chested man superimposed by a picture of blackened lungs. No face. No name. No mandatory ‘Cigarette sniffing makes your eyes water’ message. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. ‘Cigarette sniffing is injurious to hair’? ‘Cigarette sniffing is halibut to injury?’.

I give up just as I note the frown on the shopkeeper’s face. The other smokers are edging away from me. Just because a man takes a minute to think. Bloody amoeba. What would they know? What was that saying my grandmother used to parrot? Bandar kya jaane ice-cream ki sugandh?

I reach for my notebook and I tear out two pages from it. The shopkeeper reaches out and I swear he does this gingerly with the tips of his fingers. He plucks just one sheet off and sets it down on a looseleaf pile to his right. I watch the first page of the sixth chapter of my next novel settle in with toiletpaper remains, slightly dusty tissues, a sheaf of oil-stained brown paper and a cardboard square. I know he uses that pile to wrap unpackaged things. Maybe he’ll use my worded page to giftwrap somebody’s special purchase.

I slide two cigarettes out of the pack and put it back on the counter. He frowns again, this time even more troubled and looks around his tiny shop. Then he turns and takes out the tomato, lemon and a few leaves from the jar behind him. He packs them deftly in the oily brown paper and hands it to me.

Well, so my noted paper is worth more than a couple of cigarettes. Not that I know what to do with a lemon, a tomato and some leaves. But what the hell, eh? In a world that doesn’t value your currency, you’ve to learn to value their’s.

Back at home, I drop the vegetables on my table and survey the cupboard. I’m a rich man then. I think I’ll start with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first. It might even buy me a car. But perhaps I should invest it instead. Charcoal, first. I’ll have to figure out something to write on. Leaves? Tissue paper, I decide. Cover them with words and letters. Look at me, I’m a money mint! It’s not counterfeiting if it’s the original. Call me an artist.

I wake up, this time in a cold sweat. Hot sweat, actually. My eyes start watering the minute I open them. The smoke is so thick, I can’t even see the door. I drop to the floor and ease my way out. By the time the fire engines arrive, I’m crying so hard, my face is streaked with snot down to my throat. The books are gone, all gone. Our world has truly lost every last word now.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

W is for Writers Block

*Image via thaikrit on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings – Kuzhali Manickavel: Quirky & Enjoyable In Tiny Doses

Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have WingsInsects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings by Kuzhali Manickavel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book piecemeal, stretched out over several months. Halfway through, I decided to finish the rest in one go. My conclusion is that the first style is better. This book is filled with strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre snippets. Fantasy, memory and stark reality intermingle. It seems a bit much when consumed in one go but works well when you read them one or two at a time only.

I particularly enjoyed ‘You Have Us All Late and Follow’,’Coconut Water’,’Information Regarding the Two Main Characters’ and ‘The Queen of Yesterday’. After awhile, the styles start to get repetitive. (For instance, ‘Jame That Bread of Life’ is much like ‘You Have Us All Late and Follow’).

The voice is certainly unique as are the settings – Tamil Nadu with an uber-urban bent of mind. So you have characters named Malar, Alarmel and Senthil in live-in relationships, filthy roommate camaraderie and suicide-from-boredom. Kuzhali’s stories fall just on the right side of crazy – quirky enough to be entertaining, mundane enough to be relatable. This is poetry masquerading as literature.

I’d definitely recommend a read, for the novelty value alone. But you probably wouldn’t want to have a shelf full of books like this.

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Sita – Devdutt Pattanaik: Repackaging The Indian Superhero With The Same Old Religious Tripe

Sita An Illustrated Retelling of the RamayanaSita An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana by Devdutt Pattanaik
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am utterly disappointed with this book. Let me make it clear at the start that I’m disappointed because of my expectations of the author, based on past books, and not because the book itself has major flaws.

After reading and enjoying ‘The Pregnant King’ and ‘Jaya’ by Devdutt Pattanaik, I had high expectations from this book. Dr.Pattanaik’s story-telling, I thought had a marvelous way of constructing the narrative, devoid of the over devout tone that one finds in all religious stories across India. With ‘Jaya’, it allowed me to discern larger lessons, more intricate realizations from the nuances of Mahabharata, since it did not stick to the formula of the Pandavas as starkly good and the Kauravas as big villians. ‘The Pregnant King’ had a similarly objective tone, while also telling a great story.

Sita, I’m afraid is a cop out. It is a narration of the Ramayan, exactly the way I’ve heard from every single religious person I’ve know. The title appears to be picked to throw you off, give the impression that this is another point of view of the Ramayan. But truly, Sita is a cardboard character at best, in this narrative and appears in very few chapters.

Ram is the starring superhero who can do evil. All his violent acts and decisions are miraculously vanished away by the victims claiming to be a curse that they are liberated from, by being slaughtered by Ram.

From a fiction point of view, Lakshman is the classic sidekick character, created only to glorify and showcase the protagonist’s superiority. The only thing he does is pitch fits at every given opportunity, giving Ram a chance to say something profound.

Ravana is the worst depicted of the lot. Unlike Jaya, where character nuances were explored, in this tale, Ravana is depicted as an excessive supervillian. His wisdom and kingdom sovereignity (that have been talked about by historians) are brushed away with flimsy explanations, painting him out to be a bad guy, simply because he is BAD.

‘Jaya’ referenced several local legends and religious myths to add detail and colour to a complex story. ‘Sita’ in contrast, consistently refers to 4 or 5 other tellings of the Ramayan and in this book, just attempts to collate all of them in one narrative. Since, none of them really vary in any significant manner except for the most minor of details, this barely adds anything to the story.

If you have never read or heard the Ramayana, this is one narrative that’s decently written. That said, it paints a very one-sided stark view of a narrative that is much more complex and thus, is incomplete and superficial.

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