Tag Archives: Book

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.

View all my reviews

Word Work

Reading ‘Advice for Writers’ -compiled by Jon Winokur. Sometimes it gets a laugh out of me. Several of the insights are valuable. But each time I’m suddenly overcome by the panicky sense of what-am-I- doing-here and have to look away.

When the realisation of your dream and how close it is makes you want to throw up your breakfast, is there any hope for you? No. You were doomed from the first word.

Movie: Dhobi Ghat – Mumbai Musings

Movies are a big part of weekend planning. Realistically, what else is there to do in Mumbai? Let’s not go into the notions of what a ‘happening’ city this is. I’ve been active on the cultural circuit for the past year and a half and gone to everything I could find. Poetry slams, Open mics, music gigs, stand-up comedy, workshops, book readings, board game meets…to my utter disgust, all I found was the same frenzied networking, the same desperate need to be cool, the same petty politicking and hard-nosed business dealings, in place of any real interest in the event/field or depth of thought. I’ve struggled with this but had to conclude that Mumbai lets you make a living, not a life.

Dhobi Ghat, Kiran Rao’s directorial debut was this weekend’s big feature. It started on a less-than-pleasant note. Considering that movies are the only standard entertainment available and the skyrocketing multiplex prices, I tend to frequent the second-tier theatres that are still ‘safe’ for a woman to go to alone but cheaper. Moviestar Goregaon was my pick. We entered about ten minutes before the start of the show, when the lights were still on, which is probably why the filthy seats caught our notice. I don’t mean a broken armrest or an undone stitch on the upholstery. I mean filthy, godaloneknows what black, smelly, gunky-goo streaked across all the seats that we could find. The manager was apologetic enough but there were no cleaner seats available and so we had our tickets refunded. While on this, I must add that the theater is now under BIG cinemas which to me, means that service levels can only plummet. My past experiences show that Fame Adlabs, also part of the same group, offers rude staff, smelly (and bedbug-infested) seats and stale food for its high prices. I bid goodbye to another of my budget alternatives. The boy was most appalled at the fact that the other theatergoers streamed in, blindly (and deafly) made their way around us and arranged themselves comfortably in those same filthy seats, even as we pointed them out to the staff. Mumbai, you could redefine the laws of robotics.

We managed to finally catch the movie at 24 Karat, another theatre down the road and I was glad we’d persisted. After the kind of tortures that Bollywood has been visiting on our senses lately (Sheila Kejwani, anyone?), it was a real pleasure to not have to shield my eyes and ears.

A number of things stand out about the movie. Firstly, there isn’t one concrete plot. What there are, are a number of strong, well-etched characters and the little (and big) incidents that constitute their lives. Secondly, the absence of background music is noticeable. Most Bollywood films use music to cue the audience into the mood of the scene, sometimes excessively. Dhobi Ghat, in comparison, is understated, stark and disorienting because it doesn’t offer any such hints, preferring instead to let the audience figure it out for itself. It’s hard to tell whether you’re supposed to laugh at Zohaib’s poker-faced filmdom dreams or empathize with them. It’s tricky to deciding whether Shai’s pursuit of Arun (and parallel ignorance of Zohaib’s attention) is pathetic or natural. You’re not sure whether to dislike Arun or admire him. And thus we respond to the characters just the way we would to people in real life. With confusion, with warmth, with respect and then derision, with conflicting emotions.

It seems counter-intuitive but its not, that when the viewer is given so much to think about, even deeper levels make themselves visible. I liked how Dhobi Ghat effectively portrays that Mumbaikers blur the social order but don’t quite erase it. Economic classes, gender barriers, cultural divides are bridged and broken in mysterious ways. Most of us flit in and out of the periphery with a comfort that sometimes baffles outsiders. Interactions happen in that twilight zone as so relationships – odd, indefinable and yet deeply intimate ones like those of fellow train-passengers, bais & dhobis & house madams and people who occupy the same flat at different times.

Prateek Babbar (underutilized in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na) steals the show with a poker face arranged around brooding-animated-wry-resigned-intense-pragmatic eyes. A hundred emotions flit across his face in a single look over a brun maska. And most impressively, his very silhouette seems to evolve over the course of the movie, starting with an awkward, blurred  look to a more resolute, defined profile at the end of the movie. I don’t know if that’s good acting or good cinematography; I’m willing to bet on both.

Kriti Malhotra comes in second in terms of her performance as the anonymous face in a series of video-letters. She’s spontaneous, realistic and her voice washes over you with as much familiarity as the neighbor’s.

I was the least impressed with Monica Dogra. Considering the footage she has in the movie, (the promos say it’s four people’s stories but she seems to be around the most), she doesn’t stand out much, except as a moderately pretty face. Interestingly, her act is what made me think that Dhobi Ghat may have made a good movie but it would be a great book. The characters are wonderfully created and the script is taut. Beyond that, it falls to the people who don the roles to bring them to life and I’m afraid Monica as Shai, just didn’t do it for me.

As always, I checked what Meetu had to say before watching the movie. This time, I don’t quite agree with her, when she says that the movie could have very well been set in New York or London or even Pune. Dhobi Ghat doesn’t just pay lip service to standard Mumbai iconography like trains and movies. It snaps up an accurate slice of Mumbai life, from its crowded chaos jostling with glitzy glamour to the near schizophrenic behavior that these contrasts seem to bring out in the city’s occupants.

I started this post talking about the robotic behaviour of Mumbaikers but I also speak for the tangible, prideful emotion that we carry collectively. A city is no more than a group of human beings, after all. And I’d like to think that the unique situations that this group finds itself in, day in and day out, makes us uniquely who we are. Dhobi Ghat seems to agree.

If you love Mumbai, this is definitely for you. If you’re appalled by it and there’s still room for an explanation, maybe this movie will give you one.

Reverb10.6: The Creative Flow

I actually like the Reverb 10 prompt on this one because I instantly had an answer and it also ties in to one of the most useful insights a friend brought my way earlier this year.

December 6 – Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it? (Author: Gretchen Rubin)

I’m going to take this question to exclude the creation of writing. Other that writing, how have my creative ideas been expressed? Let’s see. I discovered a spark of an interest in the kitchen. Instead of falling back on the system, in my case my mother’s teachings and many cookbooks, I went online. I explored a cuisine I knew nothing about (and that my mother knew nothing about). And I experimented. The advantage was that my mother couldn’t stand over me correcting every little action. It freed me up to explore the art of cooking for myself. Full expression and mastery of a creative field does require privacy and the freedom to make your own mistakes. I think my mother doesn’t quite get that and her total and complete control over whatever I do in the kitchen, kills whatever spark I might have. I managed to break free of that by trying this. I made pesto, moussaka, Greek salad and a cake. 🙂 Tummy happy and mummy happy too!

The other thing that I did do is pick up fabric-painting again. Seven years ago, I used it as an escape from a difficult situation I was in. That time it was a bad relationship. This time, it was the anxiety and pressure I felt over my book. Surprisingly it really helped. It was such a comfort to be able to create something that I felt confident about. Alternately it was very relaxing to be able to mess around without anything really invested in the result. I also picked up the Ideart series again. What’s more, in a very funny way, it acted as a lubricant for my then-stuck writing. I guess creative expression through different outlets keeps things moving for an artist.

Of the many things I’d like to create, I’ll narrow down to the same two I’ve spoken of here. I would like to learn cooking further. I already have the basics of vegetarian South-Indian cooking. I identified non-vegetarian cooking and baking as two things I’d like to explore. It’s not entirely a coincidence that my mother does neither of these. She’s a wonder in the kitchen with her South-Indian vegetarian cooking. And somehow, there is just no room for me to experiment or indeed, prove myself there. It feels too much like a competition and one that I’d never win. On the other hand, in non-vegetarian cooking and baking, there’s no question of competition. I’d feel free to just be myself and mess about, confident that whatever turned out would be right and fine. Takes the pressure so very much off but retains all the fun and satisfaction of creation!

The other thing I’d like to do relates to visual art. I would love to paint a mural in my room or on the outer wall of my building. Currently I don’t see that being possible, since a lot of paints spark up my allergies. Having them in my bedroom would be condemning myself to months of allergy attacks. But it’s something that bears thinking about and maybe I’ll revisit it, in the weeks ahead.

I just realized my insight from this prompt was that result-orientedness could kill creativity. It’s a little too Zen to advocate not caring about results at all. But perhaps switching to something else, at least temporarily, can help take one’s mind off the pressure of doing well.

Reverb 10.4: Wonderful Life

This Reverb 10 prompt seems rather similar to the previous one and it makes me wonder whether the exercise will continue to hold interest at all. Still, nothing ventured, so here goes.

December 4 – Wonder.

How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year?

(Author: Jeffrey Davis)

Having left behind the rigid daily schedule (and more importantly), the utter joy-drain of the corporate world was like opening up the door to wonder. I’ve been moody at times, grumpy and even sad. But I’ve never been without that sense of wonder since I quit.

There are walks on the beach of course, which never fail to remind me of how much bigger then universe is, than my petty troubles, than the little cocoon that we Mumbaikers tend to think of as the world. And then there are visits to the bookshop. More and more I see familiar names pop up in the Indian Writing aisle. That makes my dream seem closer, much more reachable. And in the next lane, my favorite authors or genres jostle for my attention. I’m lost in the beauty of human imagination, in the glory of words and ideas that live on long after the minds and tongues they passed through, are gone. And finally, a sense of overwhelming awe that I am to be a part (however small) of this world. Wonder, indeed.

I’ve lost heart more than once. Last year, at six months from quitting, I expressed my frustration at being rudderless. It was my father who reminded me that the jobs that waited for me then would still be waiting a year later and that I shouldn’t give up so quickly on what I thought was my passion. Another six months later, another man I’ve come to love, reminded me of the same thing. A short three months later, I wrestled with self-doubt in my own head. As if in reply, within the space of a week, my mailbox was popping with opportunities to do what I love – write. One resulted in the BlogAdda column, the second was the JetLite article, then came Yahoo! Real Beauty and other things.

A few days ago, I met a placement agent to discuss a potential job, the kind that I had left behind over a year ago. For the first time in my career life, I said that my top priority was a good work-life balance. She frowned and said that the company would not want to meet someone with ‘such issues’. I tried to explain that I was not afraid of hard work but that I was making a decision to let other areas of my life be as important. She shrugged, already having lost interest and the interview should have ended there. But quite suddenly, she shot out,

“You know, most companies would not expect this from someone at your level. People with 10-12 years of experience can say these things. But someone who is just beginning their career should not have all these restrictions.”

I gaped and then quickly took my leave. For at least two days after that I agonized over what she had said, the old guilt creeping in. After 6 years, 3 companies and managing over 25 people, was I still ‘beginning my career’? Was I losing the strong work ethic I thought I had? Had I ever had it at all? Was I being unrealistically demanding, behaving in essence like the ‘pampered princesses’ I’ve loathed all these years?

But then, I remembered my many late nights at work. I remembered forfeiting weekends and holidays. I remembered struggling with a near-arthritic neck, to stare at the computer screen. I remembered forcing myself to not think about period pains and nausea while standing up to make presentations. I remembered skipping meals for meetings and stepping out of restaurants to take phone calls that just had to be answered. I remembered finishing a report or an important document at 11:30p.m., then getting myself a cup of tea and then sitting down to spend another hour poring over the whole thing all over again to make doubly-trebly-hundred times sure it was perfect. I remembered the harsh words of my seniors picking out my flaws but I also remembered the sense of injustice I felt. And finally I thought of the fact that I had missed the weddings of every single one of my close friends in the past five years because I just hadn’t had the time.

I realised I deserved to ask for what I wanted. With it came the crystallization of the thought that much of corporate ambition and success thrives on belittling people, on keeping people insecure and subservient. It survives by killing the sense of joy and wonder in people. And I’d be a fool to willingly let myself back into that, at least without a fight. Bring on more of the wonders, I’m waiting to be dazzled!

What The Cards Say

Someone recently asked me if I would do a tarot reading for them. I found a polite way to decline and recommended a friend who does this and related things for a living. Then they asked if this person was any good, whether it would work. And I had trouble finding an answer.

It took my two weeks and it came to me during a break in between reading Death: The High Cost of Living, when I was brushing my teeth (as many such wonderful ideas and solutions to life-changing problems often do). The words scrolled through the teleprompter inside my head and I saw what I had to say and even what I would think but not say.

“She is a good friend. I’ve learnt alongside her. I’ve read for her, with her and she’s read for me. But any tarot reader, astrologer, trainer, adviser, psychiatrist or even physician – they are all only guides and no one can know what is happening inside you better than yourself.

My friend sincerely believes in what she does and that’s the best I can say, with certainty. They do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yet, how else can we survive? Hopes, our own and other people’s, serve as guiding lights on this path. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and pick out our steps. Or if seeing is so painful, you can choose to walk blind, holding on to other people’s guidance. But if you do, how can you be sure the other person isn’t walking blind, using your outstretched hands as guidance too?”

I hold reason, cold rationale in one hand and the flowing cup of belief in the other. My life is a constant balance between these two and occasionally the remnants of other beliefs that have passed through the cup. I wouldn’t believe in something that I didn’t first examine and learn to do for myself. But that’s just me. Seeing is hurtful but walking blind is downright scary. I dare not close my eyes.

I thought of all this and so I wrote it down. Because there is much to remember and everything is already known. But sometimes I forget and so I leave little reminders for myself to serve as guidance in my moments of blindness. Or forgetfulness. Or just faithlessness. I pick a card, I pick a memory.

Neil Gaiman’s Delirium in Sandman: Endless Nights

Three-Quarterly Review

While everyone in the accounts departments sits heavy on numbers and does a stock-taking quarter-by-quarter of the year that was, it occurs to me to do the same with my life. Except this is a three-quarterly review. Of my 29th year.

I’ll be 30 this July and it’s an odd thing but instead of feeling 29, I’ve been feeling ‘one away from 30’. It’s like the way numbers are counted in Hindi where 19, 29 and so on are one less than the nearest 10-multiple. Okay forget that, yes, it is the big Three-O looming up ahead. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a big deal (yes, even if I know theoretically it shouldn’t be, life begins at 30 yada yada…). I’m human after all and there’s so much swirling in my head, I’m not waiting till July to write about it. And thus begins the 30 diaries – a special set of features on the experience of hitting 30.

So what has been happening these last three quarters of my one-away-from-30 year? Plenty.

Love life: A non-boyfriend and a non-relationship. The customary one-in-a-few years check in on someone that went off well. Ask no questions and hear no lies. A few crushes-that-go-nowhere. A pang.

Travel: I visited two new countries. My first visit to Europe (well I’ve been to London but that was on work and I had no sight-seeing or fun) and my first time on a cruise as well. I didn’t write enough of about it. Frown.

Career: I changed jobs. Well, technically I’m still with the same company but in a completely different role, practically a 180 degree turn. Do I like it? I’m still trying to figure it out. I don’t hate it. Yet.

Media: I got featured in the press a few times. Only once accurately. These journos, what to tell ya… 😀

Death: I’ve attended two funerals, both within a fortnight of each other. One, my best friend’s father who succumbed after a long and difficult struggle. The other, a wonderful and dear colleague whom I still miss.

Interests: My favorite bookstore was shut for 4 months on account of a fire. I received books and only books as birthday gifts. A book-voucher as a gift from a reader. And another as a V-day gift. 🙂

I’ve written and written and written. (Yet another) group-blog. I didn’t contribute to the Kala Ghoda Gazette this year despite attending the festival.

Every now and then I remember that I used to paint. And promise myself that I’ll take it up again. Still waiting.

Last night I dreamt that I went on stage to sing. That was after facing numerous hurdles like the compere scheduling me without telling me, a new compere not letting me on stage, the orchestra packing up (wherein I begged and begged the restaurant musicians to back me up and they did), another guy sabotaging my audience by paying them off, a semi-drunk wandering up on stage and ruining my song by singing off-key. Oddly I ended the song with my back to the audience but they gave me a loud encore. Wherin I woke up. So another reminder. I used to sing too. And I used to sing well, not just in the bathroom. Ah, the lives that we let go of with the choices we make!

Health: Twice in seven months, I had major health scares – arthritis and spondilitis. Both of them turned out to be indicative of calcium deficiency caused by a Vitamin D deficit. I didn’t know whether to laugh or frown when the final prognosis was,

Worry less and get out in the sun more often!

Ironic that very morning I remarked that,

I’ve turned into one of those horrible people who feels guilty about taking a day off from work, even if it is sick leave.

Ironic turns to miraculous when I remember that a decade ago I dropped a year from college, without remorse or second thought. When did I turn into super-efficient whizkid? This isn’t me, this so isn’t who I am.

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