Tag Archives: Alexander McCall-Smith

NovelRace Week 10: Everything But The Novel

I’m going to touch upon a number of things in this post, none about the novel itself, but all of them in some manner related to it.

I haven’t written a word all week. I could use the fashionable ‘writer’s block’ as an excuse but I don’t think that’s quite it. I am still able to write, technically. That is to say, the words are there and so is the story. But – in a nutshell – I’m freaking out.

A conversation ensued with my in-house coach/ pop-psychologist/ critic/ father. He told me about an incident from his college days, staying in a hostel during vacation. He was one of the 4 or 5 people remaining in a building that normally housed over a 100. One night, after grabbing a bite in town (the hostel mess was shut too), he started back for the hostel. It was a dark, rainy night and he had to alight at a bus-stop on the main road, cut across a football ground and circle a deserted college building to get to the main hostel. Along the way, he remembered that on that particular night, he was going to be the only person on campus. On the heels of this, came the realization that he was standing bang in the middle of a football field, lightening flashes making for scary effects in the otherwise pitch darkness, in pouring rain. Neither the road nor the hostel were visible. And in either case, there wouldn’t be a soul in sight at that hour.

As he was telling me this, my mind started up a memory of its own. You know how it is, the projector room inside your head, follows schedules of its own. I thought about when I was 11, an age young enough for the muscles to be mint-fresh for trying but also old enough to have developed and learnt fears. I was in a diving pool 40feet deep and I was petrified of heights (and depths). I remember looking up into the sky and wondering,

What am I doing here? How did I ever get here?

I did remember getting into the pool, starting the lap but it felt like that was someone else; someone who had kidnapped my body but abandoned it – and me – midway. Believe it or not, I had been swimming with my eyes closed (eyes open underwater was too scary, it was so green and murky) and I had managed to hit dead-center of the pool exactly at the moment that I stalled. The sky was grey and there were drops of water starting to come down. On either side, there were people walking around, talking, getting in or out of the pool. I could hear them in spasmodic bursts as my ears bobbed in and out of the water. None of them were even looking in my direction and I doubted they’d be able to hear me even if I spoke. I was going to die and no one would notice till it was too late.

Both these stories are apt metaphors for where I am with the novel, right now. After two months, the initial headiness that blinds one to obvious practical difficulties has worn out. At 137 pages of 46,442 words and the much coveted no.5 rank in the race, I’ve gone too far into the book to be able to just crumple up the page and chuck it into the waste-paper basket. And the end is nowhere in sight. There is the added pressure of the realization that I have no ground beneath me. I quit my secure job a couple of months back. Admittedly I was confident then, of being able to get back when I liked and in my saner moments, that still holds. Yet, it has been such an unaccountably disorienting feeling, this loss of identity. I never realised that my identity was so strongly defined by my job and my career. Now that I’m not an employee of such-and-such company, boss of team of X people, owner of that desk in the corner…..who am I? For awhile it felt curiously exciting to be able to say ‘writer’. (‘Sabbatical’ feels old after I did that over four years ago). But it is just such shaky ground that may materialize or it may turn out to be just quicksand. Yes, I am freaking out.

Okay, another thought. I’ve been laid up sick in the past week as well. I’ve had blood tests, malaria checks, antibiotic courses run, re-prescribed, cancelled and now a change of doctors. In my sheer gloom at having to ‘lie still and be quiet’, I picked up ‘Tea-time for the Traditionally Built’ by Alexander McCall Smith. I bought it in June but have been saving it up like a precious treat for just the right moment. It is after all the newest installment of the Mma.Ramotswe books and who knows when the next one will come out? McCall Smith isn’t J.K.Rowling in popularity though I daresay he could teach her (and several others) a few things about good writing. Undiagnosed and prolonged illness merited a reward I decided and began the book last night, going over each word to savour its beauty.

Earlier today I spoke to my mum (another McCall Smith fan) about the book. We got to talking about Mma.Makutsi whom she said she didn’t like much. The very fact that such strong emotions can be aroused in a reader goes to show the talent of the writer. If you’ve read the books, you’ll remember the big-spectacled, 97%-achieving assistant detective to Mma.Ramotswe as well as her struggle against the more beautiful people in the world and her lack of suitors. What you may not remember is that Mma.Makutsi is not, as is the impression conveyed through the books, a single woman with zero prior experience in relationships. In ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, she is introduced as follows,

Mma.Makutsi was the widow of a teacher and had just passed their general typing and secretarial examinations with an average grade of ninety-seven per cent, she would be ideal – they were certain of it.

I must add that I didn’t remember that myself and only caught the word ‘widow’ the second time I read the series. But it is there undeniably. Yet, it is never mentioned in the later books, through the many references to her people in Bobonong, her competition in the beauty and love stakes with Violet Sephoto and multitudinous other details about Mma.Makutsi’s life. If I may be so bold, I’d like to guess that Mr.McCall Smith wrote her in as a minor character but as the story progressed, realized that she could be given a far bigger role. And so as the story grew, he added on more of her life, made her world bigger (promotion, relatives, boyfriend, business, house, fiancé). It would probably complicate things too much to detail her widowed history and that would go against the simplicity of the story. The first book had probably already been published (maybe even the second, considering that Mma.Makutsi really came into her own only in the third book, ‘The Kalahari Typing School For Men’). So he just went along with the story and hoped (I presume) that no one noticed too much.

That made me think of an even bigger author who made a completely unrealistic change to the lives of one of fiction’s most popular characters and the whole world bought it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes fall over a cliff in ‘The Final Problem-Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes but on popular demand (and much to his reluctance) resurrected the detective to bring him back for many more stories.

Well, the last two notes make me a little happier and more cheerful. If Sir Doyle and Mr.McCall Smith could do it with such panache, why not me? Change is built into every aspect of us after all. An hour ago, when I was starting to write this post, I chanced upon some notes I made when I started the novel. These were sketches of characters for the original novel, which I discarded 3 chapters in. It just struck me that there is still a story there and I’ll probably pick that up again for NaNoWriMo (looming high in a month’s time). What’s more, there’s a character I carried over from there to this book, who just doesn’t seem to be fitting in anymore. I guess his rightful place is in his homeland…the earlier novel that is. So back he goes. And the novel I’m currently writing should be able to move on without him.

Funny are the lessons one learns. From Mike Carey’s Lucifer that I finished reading a fortnight ago, I know that even God makes mistakes and tries new stunts all the time. I’m just playing a smaller God with the very tiny universe inside my mind. Bear with me, it’s going to be a turbulent ride and I don’t even know if it’ll be worth it. But I’ll never know unless I try. On that happy note, wish me better health because I sincerely hope to be able to report a better wordcount and story pace next week.

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Other NovelRace updates:

  1. NovelRace
  2. Adventures Galore!
  3. If You Fall, Get Up & Run Again!
  4. The Lone Runner
  5. My Characters Are For Real!
  6. The View From The Shoulders Of Giants
  7. So Much In A Name!
  8. Taking A Stand
  9. Everything But The Novel
  10. The Long, Dark Teatime Of The Writing Soul

A Landmark Love Story

The Landmark bookstore opens its doors on 23rd January 2009. Landmark has been shut these past three months after a fire broke out in Infinity Mall where it is housed, causing much damage to merchandise and fittings. Mercifully no human casualties except of course for avid Landmarkers who’ve missed the store sorely all this while that it has been undergoing renovation.

I’m irrationally excited over this. Come Friday and I’m making no plans, except to trek back to my favorite bookspot and just savour the feeling of being able to walk around in its interiors again. Is this an indication of the shallow, consumerist lifestyle I lead, that I miss a shop so much? Let me tell you just what Landmark means to me.

I’ve been an avid reader from my early childhood, dating right back to when I missed having siblings to play with, fight with and keep me occupied and hence turned to books for company, for entertainment, for solace, for answers and finally for identification. I’ve also been a loner all my life, never mind the huge groups of people I always seem to have around me.

For the longest time ever, in Mumbai, a booklover’s only source of soul nourishment was to scour the neighborhood raddiwallas and make an occasional trip to Churchgate to browse the street stalls at Flora Fountain. Then came Crossword with its ubiquitous yellow-and-black stores, retailing books. So books were available in a shop close to home. Though, if your tastes extended beyond potboiler bestsellers and management/self-help books, you were still obliged to fall back on your bohemian book-haunts or still brave the journey to town to visit Oxford.

Landmark opened its first store in Mumbai in 2006.

I remember stopping and staring at the poster announcing its soon-arrival at the mall and smiling with sheer joy. My Chennai soujourns had made me quite familiar with this bookstore chain famous in the south. On my first visit to the store, I wandered in curiously, wondering whether the insofar bookstore had only decided to set up its music and movie business in Mumbai. All I could see were aisles and aisles of DVDs and CDs! And then at the very end, almost like a tunnel suddenly opening up, I stumbled into a huge…paradise. Books, books, books as far as I could see.

I’d only ever seen so many books in one place at the annual Strand book sale, which would still be unorganized piles of books, stacked onto cloth-covered tables. But here I was standing among rows and rows of gleaming shelves neatly categorized as Humour, Literary Fiction, Classics, Romance, Spirituality, Teen Fiction, Children’s books, Feminism, Travel, Science, Architecture, Movies, Art and so on. I walked passed authors I’d never known existed, genres I’d never conceived and books I’d never heard of.

Landmark became an integral part of my weekend schedule. I’d plan to catch a movie or lunch or dinner with a friend and find an excuse to be at Landmark. I’d either ask to meet them at the mall that also has a theater and a food-court. Sometimes I’d drop by after an outing or arrange to meet someone between Magazines and Featured Books. Some days I’d go there by myself and spend hours browsing, walking out for a snack, poring over a book I’d bought or just feeling – something – just walking around.

My relationship with Landmark has grown in parallel with my relationship with my own writing. For a very long time, writing and creative endeavors were distant dreams, fantasies that I never really thought about seriously. I started my blog on a whim, to ‘get it out of my system’ so to speak. Surprisingly I found, my inspiration and my inclination…and my obsession to write only grew with time. After much teenage angst, anxiety-ridden decisions of education and work, job-switches and on/off relationships, I’ve discovered my passion. Words are my one and only real passion.

Writing is an indescribable feeling, one that rejuvenates me and one that takes me over in a fury and leaves me feeling quite spent – and fulfilled. I’ve never felt the same sense of completion with anyone or anything or anywhere else. The best thing about my job is how much it allows me to write. And where is a poet more at home than in a garden? Landmark is a garden of ideas, of people and stories and poems and articles and books all the many different ways we find to share our impressions with each other. The world outside disappoints me, hurts me, wears me down. But I walk back into a world of books and I find authors I deeply admire, words that bring me comfort, ideas that rekindle my zest for life, so much inspiration to just be me.

You might argue that I could have this in any other bookshop in the world. Yes, perhaps, if only there were others that offered the mind-boggling variety of books, a friendly but not intrusive staff and the convenience of location. If you’ve seen the movie ‘You’ve got mail’, you might say that Landmark has the staggering variety of Fox books set in the cosy ambiance of the corner bookshop.

Now, three years later, I have a sentimental attachment to the Landmark store as well. The staff not only knows me by face and name, one of their employees has become a close, personal friend. I remember meeting Lord Jeffrey Archer, idol of my teenage years and buying a book for a special lady in my life. I walked through the aisles playing a ‘now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t’ with a date who enjoyed books as much and picked out Knots by R.D.Laing for him. Weeks later, when he broke my heart, I healed myself in the comfort of Milan Kundera and Alexander McCall-Smith. I found a new friend, a new circle of people, a new interest and a new path to the future in Graphic Novels. I nurtured the early stages of a long-distance relationship through my SMS-chats and whispered conversations about the books I was browsing (while he’d be doing the same in the store in another city).

In these past three months, I’ve visited two countries, been in love and out of it, borne two deaths, has my sense of stability shaken by the terror attacks, discarded a friendship, renewed a few, acquired some more. I haven’t had that haven that Zen calls ‘the place of stillness’ through all this. My friends have made babies, celebrated wedding anniversaries, had birthdays, returned to India after years. And I haven’t been able to greet them with my choice of gift – a book specially chosen for the person and the occasion. Yes, I’ve missed Landmark so much. Friday, reunion!

And of course if any of you reading this post, have decided you love me enough to send me a gift, Landmark has a gift voucher program! 😉

Tag with Blogger's Block on Friday the 13th

I’m back! Yes, on Friday the thirteenth. Firstly tell me that you think it’s a great day already because if you don’t I’m going to make you say it. I was born on a Friday the thirteenth!!! Not this one obviously but another one long, long ago (uh, not that long ago). I’ve been so terribly thrilled to know that I picked a big day to be born that I’m almost disappointed that no one’s making a big deal of it today.

Now to other things. I’m posting after a week. No, this was not a self-imposed exile, not another case of blog-i-cide. I’ve been busy. And for a real change in a long, long time, busy in a satisfying way. You know in the way that drains out every drop of energy from you and fall back into bed, asleep almost as soon as you hit the pillow, thinking that what a lot of things happened to you today and weren’t they all great?

So yes, I’ve been busy (in a good way) and expect to be so for a few weeks at least. I’ve managed to do much that I feel good about though nothing that I want to write about. I still don’t have much to say but I’ve been experiencing – how do you say it – bloggydrawal symptoms? Lekhni kindly points me a way out of it and gives me something to talk about today.

I’m cheating ever so slightly on this since the tag is meant to use the nearest book you find lying next to you. I picked a book in the morning, knowing fully well that I’d do this tag today. (What kind of a loser plans to do a blog-tag, huh? This one does, compulsive to-do list-maker coming up!!)  So I kind of bent the rules if not actually break them. Good thing too, the damn things needed flexing and exercise just like my back. Speaking of which, I really should join the yoga institute now instead of just stretching along my instructer’s lessons. And I need a mackintosh and no one tells me where I can find one – the rain gear not the computer!!!

Okay, okay I’ll come back. *Huff Puff* It’s been awhile since I did this. Sticking to the point that is. So here the tag be –

  • Pick up the nearest book.
  • Open to page 123.
  • Find the fifth sentence.
  • Post the next three sentences.
  • Tag five people, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

The book I picked up is The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith. Sentences 6, 7 and 8 on Page 123 are:

She reached across and laid a hand upon his wrist. He looked down at where her hand rested.
‘You mustn’t be sad, Rra,’ she said.

mccall-smit.jpg

Blah, I wish I had more than 3 sentences to go by. At least there’s an entire action in this set and a conversation bit as well as two characters. Which is much considering it’s only 3 sentences. What’s more, they’re as good a representation of the book as anything. I haven’t actually gotten to page 123 as yet. I’m savouring this book page by page since its the very, very, very last (or just most recent I hope) book in the Mma.Ramotswe series.

And I’m tagging five people I suspect would have a good selection of books to pick from:

  1. Sensorcaine
  2. Rada
  3. E Vestigio
  4. The Saint
  5. Chronicus Skepticus

Boy, I wish I had something profound or interesting to say about my contribution to this tag. All I can say is that it is a reminder of the emotion of compassion and probably one I could do well to remember.

Gah, I can do better than this, I know. Oh please tell me that you believe it too. Foo (as the boy would have it), I’ll let you go and take my blogger’s blocked self off to enjoy Friday the thirteenth.

Modern Lady of Traditional Build Meets Magic & Muggles

No.1 Ladies Detective AgencyMy latest fascination is for the Botswana of Mma.Precious Ramotswe. I’m talking about the main character of ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency‘ and her world. There are those who write well, there are tales that make you think. Alexander McCall achieves both with his series about a  proud African lady detective. Mma.Ramotswe has an opinion on politics, morality, relationships and business. She is a modern lady of traditional build.

It has been a fair while since I could wax eloquent about a book. Alexander McCall Smith gives us six:

  • The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency
  • Tears of the Giraffe
  • Morality for Beautiful Girls
  • The Kalahari Typing School for men
  • The Full Cupboard of Life
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness

Mma. Ramotswe’s Botswana is gentle, unostentatious and simple. The problems she attempts to solve involve other people’s errors of judgement and plain human folly. Her methods combine logic, intuition and some traditional Botswana values. And they work! You know how the mark of a good book is that it gives you something to think about every time you read it? I’ll add to that, a good book, like a good person also helps you see a side of yourself.

I’ve been going through this series in the past couple of months (occasionally alternated with another book). I’ve also been feeling considerably content with life. Yes, a powerful character, even if she is fictitious can change your way of thinking. And Mma.Ramotswe has all sorts of tricks up her ample sleeve, including the basic yet complex trick of being happy. Read the books, they really are a joyful experience.

In the meantime I wonder what it must feel like to be J.K.Rowling at the

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

moment. She’s one of the richest people in the world, by virtue of her role as creator of Harry Potter, the one and only cult figure in my generation. At the moment, she is also one of the few people who knows exactly what happens to Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape, Voldemort and the rest of the characters in the magical world that has regaled all of us for the better part of a decade. To those who compare her unfavorably with Tolkien, I think that’s a tad unfair. The influence is undeniable but then who’s denying it? Anyone who has read the works of the father of fantasy cannot help but show traces of his impact. Besides, think….she has brought an entire generation of children back into the world of books. Reading is fashionable again. I admit it isn’t her handiwork alone but she certainly has helped spawn an entire tribe of new readers, not to mention the sub-genre of ‘magical fiction’ that gives us such books as Eragon.

Her website has an amused/stern warning to the kids that frequent her house and rummage her cupboards that,

What they are looking for has long before been moved to a safe location!

🙂 Why blame the kids when hordes of adults are waiting with bated breath for the final instalment of the Hogwarts books?

A few thoughts from someone who’s been following the series closely:

1. Will Harry die in the seventh book? I think not. While Rowling has maintained a trend of killing off a key character in each book, I doubt she’ll attack the protagonist himself. It stops her from writing future (more money-spinning) Potter books, doesn’t it? On the other hand, as the debate goes, she might just do it, just to prevent other authors writing sequels. She has promised to not ‘go the Star Wars way’ and write pre-quels. I’d think her only option is keep Potter’s future open and available for the fans to lap up and keep her in money for a long, long time to come.

2. Did Sirius Black really die? Once again, I doubt it. After all, there wasn’t ever a body or even blood. Remember Gandalf the Grey in Lord of the Rings and his ‘death’ and re-appearance in the third book? Hmm, bear in mind the Tolkien influence.

3. Who on earth is R.A.B.? Her website says that ‘Regulus Black is a very good guess’. I’ve been running through my memory for other characters whose names fit those initials and I’ve come up with duds. No one else. Guess that’s pretty clear then, unless there’s a new character?

4. Somehow I thought Luna Lovegood would make a great partner for Harry Potter. Wasn’t expecting Ginny Weasley…that’s so Bollywood, isn’t it? But then again, I’m partial to the odd one…if I’d been a character in the book, I’d have been Loony Luna.

5. Harry isn’t really a powerful wizard per se. All his victories have been helped greatly by other people – Hermione, Dumbledore, Fawkes the phoenix, members of the Order. The sixth book keeps stressing on how Voldemort has marked him out to be his equal. What if Neville Longbottom, the other option, turns up with hitherto unsuspected genius? He fits the bill too, doesn’t he as the nerdy, unobstrusive, clumsy kid? I’ll bank on this one. I only wish they’d gotten a boy with better teeth to play the role. He’s turning out to be fairly ugly in the movie series.

6. Where’s Percy in all this? And whatever happened to that girlfriend of his who was Petrified in the second book..Penny something I think? If the seventh book really does tie off all loose ends, then there ought to be mention of this somewhere. And Charlie Weasley hasn’t made a satisfactory appearance in the series, except for a brief glimpse in The Goblet of Fire. Who’s betting he’ll be back?

7. I’d love to know more about Mr.Ollivander, the maker of wands. Where did he disappear and what was he all about?

8. Oh and by the way I have some strong notions on the movies. The actor who plays Sirius Black is a shattering disappointment. I was expecting an unshaven, tall rogue with all the dash and glamour of the Bad Boy. Instead they give us someone who looks like a neighborhood goonda gone to seed. While on this, I imagined Lupin to be this nice looking, fairly pleasant faced man. The werewolf-wizard instead looks like a shifty-eyed rascal even in his ‘human’ form. And what’s this about Snape? Instead of lean, lanky, greasy-haired menacing evil, we have someone who just looks like a grumpy Punjabi (incidently have you ever met a grumpy Punju? I haven’t.)

I’ll end this rambling here. The past few days have been spent immersed deeply in the lives of Mma.Ramotswe and Harry Potter and they’re starting to seem more real to me than the rains outside my window. Maybe X is right and I should stop reading so much. On the other hand Botswana and Hogwarts are infinitely more appealing than stressful workplaces, muddy roads, ex-boyfriends and matrimony-obsessed family members.

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