27 May 2006

The Alleyway, by Rabindranath Tagore

One day, this concrete-laden alleyway of ours set out—twisting her way right and left again and again—to find something. But wherever she went, she would get stuck—a house on the right, a house on the left, a house right across.

From what little she could see by glancing above, a streak of sky revealed itself—just as narrow and as skewed as herself.

She asked the filtered slice of sky, “Tell me sister, of which city are you the blue alleyway?”

In the afternoon, she would spot the sun for just a little while and think, “I couldn’t understand any of that.”

Thick monsoon clouds cast shadows over the two rows of houses, as if someone has scratched out the light rays from the alleyway’s notebook with a pencil. Rain slides through the concrete, swooshing the snaky stream away with a snake charmer’s drum beats. The road becomes slippery, the umbrellas of pedestrians hit each other, and the water from an open drain suddenly splashes up to an umbrella, stunning its carrier.

Overwhelmed, the alleyway utters, “There wasn’t any problem when it was parched dry. Why this sudden pouring trouble?”

At the end of spring, the southern wind looks delinquent, raising swirls of dust and sweeping torn pieces of paper. The alleyway says, bewildered, “Which god’s drunken dance is this?”

She knows that all the garbage that gathers around her every day—fish scales, stove ash, vegetable peels, dead rats—are reality. She never thinks, “Why all this?”

Yet when the autumn sun slants itself on the balcony of a house, when the notes of Bhairavi float from the puja nahabat*, she feels for a second, “Perhaps something big really lies beyond this concrete track.”

The day yawns; the sunlight drops from the shoulders of the houses to rest in a corner of the alleyway, just like the slipping away of the corner of a housewife’s sari. The clock strikes nine; the maidservant walks by, tucking a basket of vegetables she bought from the market to her waist; the smell and smoke of cooking envelopes the alleyway; office goers get busy.

At this time the alleyway thinks again, “All the reality is only contained within this concrete road. What I had thought of as something big must be just a dream.”

* Music room or a tower from which live music is played/performed during festive occasions.

Translated by: Bhaswati Ghosh

25 May 2006

Redefining "Stooping Low"

That's what this much talked-about literary agent has done. Turns out she was displeased about her inclusion in the Writer's Beware 20 Worst Agencies List, which was also posted on Absolute Write (AW), one of the best online writer's resources. And in order to settle scores, she called up AW's web hosting company, asking them to shut down the site. The hosting company owner panicked and chose to pay heed to the agent. As a result, this wonderful community of writers (I can attest to that; I have been a member for a short time, and I already love it there) is now left without a home, at least for the time being.

I suppose Ms Bauer forgot to take basic arithmetic into account. "There is power in numbers" and bloggers across the blogsphere are proving just that to her. If not for this step, she wouldn't probably have received such high amounts of bad publicity in such record time, amounts enough to bring her greater disrepute than what she has possibly earned in all her years in the business.

It's a sad day when serious, sincere, yet unsuspecting writers fall prey to scamming predators in the publishing industry. The power of blogging is changing the equations, though. And if agents don't get their act together in this business, they will be outsmarted. No; no one will actually shove bad agents out of business, physically. That will happen all by itself, because writers will stop approaching them altogether.

24 May 2006

10 Books to Save

Honest confession: I am an ill-read person, if you count the number of books I have read. But as you can probably tell from the title, I have read at least ten books so far. Well, yes, I have read more than that. These are the ones I would be desperate to save if a fire broke out. I came across this interesting exercise on Lotus Reads' blog.

The books I selected are important to me for different reasons, some purely for the reading pleasure they gave me, others for the emotional value they hold, and yet others for their timeless companionship.


Shonai Shono Rupokotha (Listen to the Fairytale I Tell You) by Amiya Sen:

My grandmother wrote this book. She was a powerful writer, way beyond her times and one with a magician's ability to play with words. This book of hers has the backdrop of India's freedom struggle and tells the story of how a bunch of young people of the time did their bit for the country's independence. A book worth more than all money could buy, for me.

2. Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

3. Sanchaita by Rabindranath Tagore (Tagore's collected poems)

4. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

5. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

6. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

7. Lipika by Rabindranath Tagore (Brief Writings)

8. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

9. Carry Me Home by Sandra Kring

10. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Now, that list is in no particular order, for, I feel it's unfair to compare any two books of fiction. They all gave me tremendous satisfaction as a reader, and like I said, some of them have become lifelong friends.

Which ten books will you save?

13 May 2006

ESL or not? Matters Not

I first heard the term ESL when I joined a mostly-American online writing community three years ago. One day while chatting one of my (American) friends from the board remarked, "Your English is very good for an ESL." I had to ask her to translate the mysterious abbreviation for me, and only when she told me it was English Second Language, did I understand the full import of her compliment. Subsequently, I received praise for my grasp of English from a lot of board members. As much as I appreciated their kind words, I didn't let it all get to my head. For, I still stood hapless and flustered when it came to deciphering everyday American-speak.

After spending about a year with this accommodating community, I joined another writing group--this time a British one. Here, I was reminded of my ESL identity once again. This time though, the compliments were more backhanded than those of the American writing board. As a member of a critique group in the new community, I was required to submit a new short story every month and review the ones submitted by other members. On more than one occasion, my stories would get such notes as "I found the sentence structure a bit awkward. I know it's difficult to tackle that, and given your ESL background, it was a good effort." I swallowed the remarks since my primary focus was to improve my writing. But now that I can share it with you, let me vent a bit on that perception. No, those views didn't hurt me. They angered me.

Such a perception made me angry not because I think too highly of my English proficiency. Far from that. As far as I am concerned, learning--especially that related to writing--is a lifelong endeavour. The idea of me being an ESL, and therefore, only the second best ruffled my nerves because of the sympathetic undertone to it. Yes, English is not my first language. So what? Should that make editors take a lenient approach while reading my work? NO! When I am writing in a given language, I should be rated alongside all others who write in that language, regardless of whether they speak that in their daily lives or not.

For the record, I studied British English in school. The legacy of our colonial rulers is still in place as far as India's education system is concerned. English happens to be the language of instruction in a lot of schools (including mine) here. So I am not a latecomer to the learn-English club. I started scribbling A, B, C as a toddler, just like any American or British would. Therefore, if I am to be credited for a reasonably okay grasp of the language, I should also be the one to take the onus for any slips and slides I make.

At the same time, readers need to be conscious of what to expect from writers of different geographical backgrounds. As an Indian, whose first language isn't English, I am not likely to use it like an American, British, or Australian (or those whose native tongue is English) would. Just like the language itself, the slang that cultures using English as their first language have made up, are foreign to me. If my Indian characters start speaking like that, my story will end up being a ridiculously phony disaster. You won't even buy into the characters, would you? Another point that comes to mind is when I write about rural Indians, I am mostly translating their words into English. For, they would never speak in English; most don't know the language apart from some basic words. All these factor into my writing of this immensely universal language.

Are those points excuses for making weak prose acceptable to the Western audience? Never. More than one non-native, or should I say ESL, writer has proved how much English belongs to the whole world and not just to pockets where people speak it.

Want proof?

1. Amitav Ghosh
2. Joseph Conrad
3. Salman Rushdie
4. Ayn Rand
5. Rohinton Mistry
6. Arundhati Roy
7. Vikram Seth

I am sure there are more. And the world of words is only richer because of them.

4 May 2006


It's been about three years since I became an active Internet user. From the moment I began exploring the cyberspace, I was enchanted. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Seriously.

No, I am not referring to any experiences of stumbling upon infamous nooks and crannies of the World Wide Web. Thankfully, I've had few of those. It is the initiation into a new language that had me stumped from almost the moment I began interacting with fellow cyber explorers. One of my earliest Internet friends would often suffix her instant messages (oops, that would be IM) with an indecipherable LOL. I tried to figure that out for a long while, and when I saw she would use that word alike to say "I am having a bad hair day. Lol", and "My son stole a cookie and wasn't happy when we penalized him. Lol," I decided it was time for me to put aside my embarrassment of coming across as a dipstick and ask her what exactly LOL stood for. She just typed LOL once more in response to my question. How frustrating. And no, it wasn't funny at all.

She gave me the expanded version soon though. Those familiar with Internet jargon will know it for sure--it's Laugh Out Loud. Aha! How enlightened I felt when I finally learned the words behind the ever so enigmatic LOL, which seemed to fit into every life situation for my LOL-loving friend.

That was only the start. Soon, I came upon one Internet acronym after another, until it was almost a whole heap of them. At times I would be overwhelmed by this strange new lingo everyone in the writer's chat room I used to visit seemed to perfectly understand. Everyone, but poor, ignorant me. With time, I grew out of my what-if-they-laugh-at-my-dumbness self-conscious mode and started pestering my more learned friends for every acronym I couldn't figure out on my own (yes, I did decipher a few; I am not that dumb, you know).

It was as if a whole new code language of communication had opened up before me. And once I started making sense of BRBs and BBSs; AFKs and AYTs; LOLs and LMAOs and ROFLs; IMOs, and IMHOs; and WBs and TYs, I was just as suave in using them as my other internet-smart friends.

As much as I thought I had mastered this cutting-edge lingo, I was shaken out of my naive arrogance by a fellow food blogger, who, in a comment in our (I write it jointly with a Peruvian friend) food blog, gave me a few tips, following them with HTH. I racked my brains to unravel the words behind that cryptic trinity of letters, but when I had spent enough minutes without getting a suitable answer from my brain, I wrote back to my blogger friend, saying "Thanks for your tips. BTW, what does HTH mean?" She told me it stood for Hope That/This Helps. Duh me; why couldn't I guess that? Anyway, along with educating me on HTH, my friend also told me of a new one I had never before seen or heard anywhere. It was POS. Can you guess what it could be? If you are parenting a teenager, you possibly can. In case you are parenting a teen and still don't know, watch out the next time you hear your kid saying that to his or her friends. POS stands for Parent Over Shoulder. Ouch! I bet that one is a student coinage.

So as I pondered about my still incomplete education in this wacky new language, I joked to my publisher that maybe I should write a sequel to Making Out in America, based on Internet acronyms. She spontaneously said...well, "LOL," what else? And followed it up by saying it wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Just in case you haven't figured out some of the acronyms I mentioned but never expanded in this post, I got this terrific resource for you. Beware: It includes some less-than-decent expressions; but it's a great compilation overall.


P.S. The title of this post is: By the way, Can You Figure This? The latter of the two acronyms is a new creation. The creator? Yours truly ;)

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