26 Jul 2007

Seven Writing Questions: A Meme

Good friend Lisa tagged me for this one. I enjoyed reading her answers and thought I'd have a go at it.

1. What's the one book or writing project you haven't yet written but still hope to?

A travel book that will combine food and journeying and will take me to hidden corners of India.

2. If you had one entire day in which to do nothing but read, what book would you start with?

The twelve volumes of Rabindranath Tagore’s writings. I look at them wistfully every day, but a dozen “important” tasks draw me away from them. On a day meant just for reading, a dozen tomes will draw me—to a lifetime’s feast.

3. What was your first writing "instrument" (besides pen and paper)?

That has to be my PC. Got it around five or six years back—a second hand machine. I was thrilled to have a computer of my own. By then I had good enough typing skills, thanks to years of writing-related jobs. The PC was a godsend, not just because it boosted my writing efforts, but because it introduced me to fellow writers from all parts of the world. The internet led me to my first writing forum, enabling me to connect with writers—aspiring and published, while at the same time helping me hone my writing skills, discover my voice, and lend me new dreams.

4. What's your best guess as to how many books you read in a month?

I am a painfully slow reader. At my best, I can finish two good-sized books (300 pages) in a month. This also explains why I am so ill-read.

5. What's your favorite writing "machine" you've ever owned?

I will cheat here and say what Lisa said. My laptop, which isn’t even a year old (touch wood!). The light black notebook has given my writing life much-needed mobility—even if that only means being able to sit and work in the TV room when cricket matches are on. The laptop aided me well during my Bengal trip—I could download photos, take brief travel notes, check email, and generally didn't feel internet deprived.

6. Think historical fiction: what's your favorite time period in which to read?

My limited reading stock doesn’t include much historical fiction, but if given a chance to select a period, I would like to read books reflecting the British Raj and 20th-century India.

7. What's the one book you remember most clearly from your youth (childhood or teens)?

Gone With the Wind. This book had a sweeping impact on me. Everything in it—the setting, the storyline, the unfamiliar (for me) speech patterns, AND Rhett Butler made the summer of my school-leaving year a hard-to-forget one.

As for tagging, let me at once tag any and every one who would like to do this. Do let me know, though, so I can read your responses. :-)

20 Jul 2007

On a Cloudy Day by Rabindranath Tagore

Every day is filled with work and with people all around. Every day one gets the feeling that the day’s work and exchanges finish saying all that needed to be said at the end of the day. One doesn’t find the time to grasp that which remains unsaid within.

This morning, cluster upon cluster of cloud has covered the sky’s chest. Today, too, there’s work to do, and there are people around. But there’s a feeling that all that lies inside cannot be exhausted outside.

Man crossed seas, scaled mountains, dug holes under the ground to steal gems and riches, but transmitting one person’s innermost thoughts and feelings to another—this, man could never accomplish.

On this cloudy morning that caged thought of mine is desperately flapping its wings within me. The person inside says, “Where is that forever’s friend who will rob me of all my rain by exhausting my heart’s clouds?”

On this cloud-covered morning I hear the inside voice rattling the closed door’s fetters again and again. I wonder what should I do? Who is the one at whose call my words will cross work’s barrier to journey through the world with the lamp of song in my hands? Who is there whose one look would string all my strewn pain into a garland of joy, and would make them glow in one light? I can only give it to the one who begs it of me with the perfect note. At the bend of which road stands that ruinous beggar of mine?

My inside’s ache is wearing a saffron robe today. It wants to come outside, into the path which, like the innocent single string of an ektara, chimes within the steps of the ‘heart’s person.’

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

13 Jul 2007

In Conversation with Ramkinkar: Book Review

Yes, I have already blogged about this book. But it’s worthy of two mentions, if not more. Shilpi Ramkinkar Alapchari or In Conversation with Artist Ramkinkar ranks as one of the best books I have read in the last five years. The author, Somendranath Bandopadhyay sure knows how to bring conversations alive on the printed page. For, not one among the series of dialogues this book features reads like a well-structured interview or stiff intellectual discourse. The tone of the book, in itself conversational and informal, makes the animated interaction between the two principal voices even more life-like.

The book’s most overpowering element is the close, personal, and honest view of Ramkinkar, the man. Here is a barber’s son, coming from a financially humble background, pulled by the charm of idol-making in his village, who reaches the zenith of India’s art horizon. This ascension is only a fraction of Ramkinkar, though. What makes it so remarkable is his complete obliviousness to the fame and recognition he achieves. The book presents layer after layer of this lovable artist completely shorn of materialistic or pride-geared ambitions, rooted to the soil for all his life, not overwhelmed while receiving honor, and unfazed in the face of the most shattering despair. I saw a simple man, who never considered himself any special when the whole world revered him as a genius. A man who felt the closest to the people of the earth—the santhal tribal folks—whom he loved and respected from the core of his being for their simplicity, hard working nature and joyful living. I saw an artist so innocent and unadorned that he cared naught for the ways of the civilized world. The same ways he sometimes found so uncomfortable to deal with he calls the people displaying those as “the ones that sound so out-of-tune. “ I also saw a man pulsating with the rhythm of life, radiating warmth, and uninhibited when laughing out loud. Although a book doesn’t carry sound, the power of this one’s words helped me imagine Ramkinkar’s thunderous laughter.

Another day’s story. At the counter of Vishwabharati’s central office. (Kinkarda has) come to the cash section to withdraw his salary. While handing out the pay, the counter colleague politely informs Kinkarda that this would be his last salary packet. Kinkarda is stunned. He says, “Why, why is that?” “You retired a month ago. So…” Hearing that Kinkarda falls off the sky, “What are you saying, what will I eat then? So you won’t give me pay next month?” “No, sir,” the counter official informs awkwardly.

Kinkarda dashes off to the Vice Chancellor’s house. Kalidas Bhattacharya, the VC, was having lunch. Hearing Kinkarda’s voice he rushes out with food-stained hands. After hearing the story he says, “You heard it correctly at the office. The university has to work according to its rules, you see; that’s the problem. But there are provisions for those who retire. You, too, have those. You will receive a pension every month. Besides that there’s provident fund, gratuity…”

Kinkarda is elated. “Ah! I thought the same. There must be some arrangement. See, good thing I came to you. That’s what I was wondering, there has to be a way.”

This man is strange. His anxiety and its release are both worth watching. His mind is detached from all things material. The fists are loose. In those loose fists he’s only held art all his life.

As endearing as it is to see the sculptor’s personality, it’s still not a full view. Without knowing Ramkinkar the artist, the full depth of his inner self isn’t fathomable. Again, the author brings this part of Ramkinkar Baij in all its glory. The conversations mostly hover around the artist’s works and the author’s keen understanding of them. We get deep into the mind and heart of a creator, learning how each of his works came into being—both mentally and organically. Someone who has no artistic acumen, the discussions on Ramkinkar’s finest creations fascinated me with every nuance leading to their origin. To learn that the figure of Sujata, the woman who had served milk rice pudding to Buddha, had actually been inspired by a lanky student at Shantiniketan was not a let down, but a revelation. Especially when one learned the associated story of how the famous Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar’s mastermoshai at Shantiniketan, advised putting a bowl on top of the woman’s head, transforming her into Sujata.

"Study isn’t done only with open eyes, but with the eyes closed as well. You see beauty with your eyes and with your heart. Only when the two meet is the seeing complete….Your eye’s vision comes near the heart’s, and the heart’s vision moves toward the eye’s. Somewhere in the middle they meet…But this meeting isn’t free from conflict, my dear, it has a lot of friction. And what remains after all the clash isn’t two any longer—the two then merge into One."

In Conversation…mentions how even Tagore acknowledged Ramkinkar’s genius. One day, the poet summoned the young artist to his room. When the latter answered the call, frightened and nervous, Tagore said to him, “So, will you be able to fill this entire campus with your works?” Probably the greatest prize Ramkinkar received (and he did receive some prestigious awards).

While reading the book I lamented not being born early enough to see this humane, child-like, genius of a sculptor. But I am glad Somendranath Bandopadhyay preserved his essence so lovingly for me to cherish.

Note: All quoted text written by Somendranath Bandopadhyay, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh.

8 Jul 2007

The Impressions Didn't Die

Anyone got a writer in the family? Other than yourself I mean. I ask this because as I dive deeper into the writings of my maternal grandmother, I find myself in the midst of an amazing discovery.

She died when I was fifteen—an age when much of my sensibilities had already shaped by the influences around me. Titti, as I called my grandma, was a major influence. This had to do more with her personality than with the fact that she was a writer. While in school I had taken a liking to writing and was encouraged by some teachers in that direction. It was natural for me to look up to Titti, the writer. But for the growing me, Titti, the loving grandma, who understood the language of our generation, came first. When she was alive, I barely read any of her writing—fiction or nonfiction. Two years before her death, while shuffling some of her stories in her file she told my mother, “Tutun will get my writing published one day.” She couldn’t have been more prophetic. All these years after her death I seem to have found a small but committed publisher in Calcutta who appreciates her work and has shown interest in publishing them. During her lifetime, Grandmother had had limited publishing success. The main cause of this was her lack of proximity to the Bengali publishing world; living in New Delhi, she didn’t have the easy connectivity with prospective publishers that writers living in Bengal did.

These days I am taking out her ink-fading, paper-withering stories and typing them in Bangla so as to get them ready for the publisher. I feel ashamed to admit this is pretty much the first time I am reading most of her writing. And it is through this process that I am getting to know her deeper, while at the same time reliving the warm atmosphere she embodied as a living person. Writer friend Sandra Kring used to tell me no matter what writers write, all their works contain bits of them. I understand the real meaning of that now.

Titti, the person as I saw her, was compassionate. She cared deeply for people around her. Even as she struggled to bring food on the table for her family, she didn’t stop providing lunch to the domestic help who worked in our house. The maid worked in half a dozen homes in our neighborhood, yet my grandmother was the only employer who fed her a full-scale afternoon meal. I remember, on days when Titti had to go out to the bank or post office, she would put the food she had freshly cooked onto a plate, cover it and ask me to serve it to the maid once she was done with her chores. Titti was also highly aware of what went about in the world—be it regarding politics, sports, or entertainment. A great conversationalist, she gelled with people of all age groups, because of her ability to talk about any subject. The country’s politics interested her a lot, and she would often be seen engaged in intense debates with my grandfather who remained rigid about his political affiliations for as long as he lived. Titti, on the other hand, was a rationalist. “I will love those who love my country,” she would say, never attaching herself to any particular party or ideology. And in the end, my grandmother was modern—a woman way ahead of her times—in thoughts, not appearances. Born and brought up in rural Bengal amid village customs and superstitions, she didn’t care much for rituals. Seeing how much venom had been spewed in the name of religion, she felt the world would perhaps be a better place without organized religion of any kind.

Now, as I read her works, I find I knew but a tiny fraction of her when she shared the living space with us. Her writing reveals all the above facets of her persona—but with so much more depth. In her story about a batch of East Bengal refugees living in a government home in New Delhi following the Partition, I get to see her compassion as her real-life role of the home’s administrator enters the narrative, which, though written in fiction format, is hardly fictitious in terms of content. I see, my eyes getting soggy, how deeply she empathized with the refugee women who had lost so much—land, children, husbands—even when they poured their wrath on her. In her story about the lives of women working as domestic help, I see her journalist-like eye to detail, her dispassionate yet sincere voice, which hits the reader, even when it's not overly sentimental. Something within me stirs when I read her story featuring two soldiers posted on the frontier, where the senior one can’t make sense of the wars he’s fought, especially when he compares them to the “everyday war” his mother and wife fight in their struggle to lead a life of dignity.

I am only in the initial phase of putting together Titti’s writings for the publisher. Yet, I sense I am bonding with her in a way I never did when she was alive. I can see how all her works contain the person she was. It’s hard to describe, but after all these years, I suddenly don’t feel the void that pained me for a long time after Titti passed away.

For, she kept herself intact in those wilting sheets.

2 Jul 2007

A good story is all I need

Story Teller by Amrita Shergil, 1937

Long before the concept of “art” originated, we had stories. The earliest cave dwellers and forest tribes shared tales of everyday joys and trials when they were done with the day’s work. As humans made progress with documentation skills, these oral yarns were recorded on leaves and papers, finally evolving to what would be deemed “art” and christened Literature. As the ilk of writers grew, patronized by art loving litterateurs, so did the devices used for storytelling. The writer’s mind, like that of any other human, ever in need for exploration and experimentation, sought to play with new ideas and techniques to enter realms none other had. All through this, one thing remained constant about most of the world’s literature—storytelling. To me, that’s the core.

Tell me a good story badly and I will digest it even if I don’t feel satiated. But give me a superlative piece of writing with no visible story and you would find me flinching with unease and perhaps a good measure of blank expression. My expectations are simple and clear—in music I want good melody before I can appreciate the lyrics; in art, the painting or sculpture must speak to my heart before it teases my aesthetic sense; in writing, the story, despite being about imaginary characters and situations, would make me soar with rapture and sink with helplessness.

Now I am not talking about subtleties and subliminals here. Those aren't obscurities included just for effect and have been used even by the most ancient of storytellers. In more recent times, Of Mice and Men and The Truman Show come to the mind off the top of my head. Ah, the nuggets of treasure that lie hidden under the veneer of a well-told story. What joy it is to unearth those, even while you relish the story-on-surface itself.

From time to time, though, I run into discussions of things literary that make me balk and retreat to my low brow world. It’s not the content that intimidates me; more often, it’s the tone. It’s one that seeks to speak to the “discerning few,” not the general (read uninformed) reader. Similarly, literature that intends to use obscurity for the sake of it veers off my obtuse mind within minutes.

Two recent readings on the net seemed to resonate with these views of mine. Stephen Hines, a friend, whose agent is shopping his (brilliant) YA novel to prospective editors, wrote this in a recent blog post: “I've finished two novels so far. One is in the hands of my agent, and I'm currently about halfway done with the 3rd draft of the 2nd one. Before I got feedback from my test audience I started my 3rd novel. This 3rd novel was going to be artistic. It was going to kick off the training wheels of traditional writing techniques/plot structure and drag the young adult market (YA) kicking and screaming into deeper intellectual waters.” But the more he got into crafting this work of art, the more disenchanted he became with the whole act of writing. It soon seemed like dreaded work for him, something that hadn’t been the case with his earlier two novels. So he decided to halt art for a while and started writing a fourth novel, this one on vampires. He remains ambivalent about book # 3. “I'm still struggling with guilty feelings of "selling out" to the low expectations of the masses by going back to "just" being a storyteller instead of an artiste. Has too much book learnin' spoiled my perception of the value of just telling a damn good story with great thematic elements?” He ponders.

In the June 17 issue of Chicago Tribune, Julia Keller writes, at the cost of irritating “97 percent of the writers” and losing “a few precious friendships,” “…The arts often come swaddled in snobbery. There are critics, unfortunately, who encourage this snooty exclusivity: If you've not attended the symphony for a while, if your nightstand isn't stacked with literary classics, if you've let your Art Institute membership lapse, you're made to feel as if you really ought to just shuffle along to the ball game, beer in hand, and leave the highbrow stuff to the masters.”

I have let some expensive (by my standards) library memberships lapse and I don’t even have a nightstand. But a good story, whenever I get to read or see (as in cinema) one, does it for me. I feel no need to belong to any elitist group—as a writer or as a reader. I am but a part of the “masses” Stephen talks about. And like he says, my expectations are low. Low as in simple, not crass.

Perhaps there’s a reason why Aesop’s Fables, the Arabian Nights, and India’s epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, continue to live on?


Sikh Heritage

Related Posts with Thumbnails