30 Aug 2006

Making Sense, Nonsensically: Sukumar Ray

As the AW Chain Ship (see sidebar) sails its way through the fifth round, it's landed at my dock after crossing BK 30's harbour. BK wrote about how you can never trick her into exercising or dieting, unless you mask those evil things as something else. Makes complete sense to me. Her post is hilarious. If you are in need of a laugh, go read it.

I admire people who can make you laugh with their writing. It requires a special skill and the ingenuity to view the world in a skewed manner. Writers who trigger a tickle in the funny bone time and again are, in my view, geniuses. And no, I don't use that term lightly. The writer we meet today is a master of those funny missiles. He is the versatile, uproarious, and nonsensical Sukumar Ray—Bengali literature's very own Lewis Carroll.

I am so glad I learned reading Bengali as a child. Otherwise, I would have been denied the magic of this master of nonsense. My first brush with his strange worldview took place when I was a toddler. That was around the time I was made to learn by heart some poems from Abol Tabol or Gibberish, Ray's repository of nearly 50 balderdash verses. I didn't hate memorizing these poems; if anything, the converse was true. To the innocent and unbridled mind of the little me, such weirdness was delicious and worth getting serious about.

For, who would not delight to learn about the activities of the royal folks and subjects of Bombagarh, a fictitious kingdom, where the king keeps dried mango candy framed on his walls, the queen roams around with a pillow tied to her head, the citizenry does cartwheels on catching a cold, the king's aunt plays cricket with pumpkins, and the minister beats an urn while sitting on the king's lap?

In Gaaner Gunto or Musical Knock, he talks about the voice of the great Bhishmalochan Sharma—who starts singing on a scorching summer day—traveling from Delhi to Burma. People fall off and die by the dozens, unable to survive the "good vibrations" rampaging through the streets. Scores of animals fall prey to this thunderous singing session too, until a crazy goat knocks Bhishmalochan down with its menacing horns. That's when his savage vocal chords are finally laid to good rest.

Sukumar Ray becomes a child's friend in the most effortless way, just as Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear do. For here is someone who gives them the license to not only ponder on nonsense, but also to have limitless fun with it.

Ha Ja Ba Ra La or Mumbo Jumbo is a novelette peopled by strange creatures who are governed by even more outlandish rules. This complete nonsensical story is often compared to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in style and presentation. Yet, Ha Ja Ba Ra La, which is actually a random ordering of six Bengali consonants, remains peculiarly Bengali in its idiom and rendition.

While in your childhood, Sukumar Ray and his creations entertain you as dear friends, as an adult, you begin noticing the subtle satirical undertones in his works. He takes a dig at corrupt politicians in Ha Ja Ba Ra La, pokes fun at non-laughing pseudo intellectuals in the poem Ramgarurer Chhana (Ramgarur's Offspring), and even some of the images in Bombagarher Raja insinuate the lack of activity that leads members of the royalty to find inane vocations to busy themselves with.

Over the course of the next few posts, I will introduce you to Dashu, a character created by Sukumar Ray. Be alarmed; Dashu is a bundle of surprises, accidents, and craziness. If you don't like laughing, you may not be interested in knowing about him. But otherwise...stay tuned!

And now, keeping this a strictly funny business, may I anchor the AW Chain Ship at Andrea's port, situated in the charming town of Southern Expressions.

Note: Illustrations by Sukumar Ray

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26 Aug 2006

Orchestrated Disharmony?

Music Video entitled, "Vande Mataram".

Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Green fields waving Mother of might,
Mother free.

Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother, to thee I bow.

(Translation of Vande Mataram, by Sri Aurobindo)

That is the essence of India's national song. Translated literally, Vande Mataram would mean "Hail the Mother." In this case, Mother refers to motherland. The song is at the centre of raging political furore these days. It started with an innocuous central government directive to state governments, asking for the song to be sung at public functions on September 7, the day marking the end of Vande Mataram's centenary year.

The directive sparked off protests from a quarter of Muslim politicians and intellectuals, who felt the song's lyrics went against the tenets of Islam. How so? Because it hails the motherland, as opposed to Islam's advocating the worship of none other than Allah. They demanded the government make the singing of the song optional, not mandatory. The government agreed. Which in turn invited the anger of Hindu nationalist politicians, who declared those averse to singing the national song should leave the country.

It's the contextual relevance of the song, which is sadly getting overlooked in this political slugfest. Vande Mataram was a war cry for Indian freedom fighters during the British reign. Every nationalist, irrespective of his or her religious affiliation, had these two words on their lips. The chant became such a potent symbol of nationalism that the British banned its utterance in public and arrested anyone who violated this diktat. To this day, if seen in films and music videos, the song stimulates a degree of patriotic fervor in Indians, including for those of the post-independence generation like me.

Is the letter too hard to overlook to appreciate the spirit of the song? This is a song which united Indians to rally against the biggest imperialist power. Politicians in independent India are using it as an instrument to incite divisive sentiments. What could be more ironic?

Perhaps the fact that our elected representatives chose to create a ruckus over this, on the 22nd of this month, the very next day after Ustad Bismillah Khan passed away. The legendary shehnai maestro, while belonging to the Muslim faith, had realized the oneness of all humans and believed music was the cord that kept us strung together. In his last interview with the editor of a national daily, this 91-year-old icon of India's pluralistic culture said:

Q: Khan saheb, you have never differentiated between religions, you believe all are one.

Ustad Bismillah Khan: They are one, absolutely one. It's impossible for there to be any division. This voice you hear, it's that which we call sur*.

*Sur: Musical note.

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21 Aug 2006

Old Story, New Contest

Old story:

Back in June, I took part in the Midnight Road short fiction contest, hosted by Jason. Part of the contest is the learning that comes with it. So here's my entry, in a modified version. I incorporated some of the suggestions Jason gave me in his feedback. Do let me know how you like it. Thanks, Jason.

The Eyewitness

“You know, you should just quit it.” Her words stiffened his limbs every evening, as he lumbered his way back home. They had arrived in the neighborhood just last month, and while everything else seemed okay, the dark stretch vexed her as much as it paralyzed him.

If only he had the luxury of not pursuing the part-time MBA classes after work every evening.

Difficult to admit though it was, he hated the fact that it was the only route back home from college. It was a weird road; he didn't doubt that. No matter how many times the municipality fixed the street light, it would stop functioning.

It’s always midnight here.

“Silly girl, always thinking the worst. I am not the only one who walks on that road,” he would tell her.

Faking reassurance. Easy. Plodding through that dark track every evening. Creepy. In the back of his mind, snapshots lurked—of pickpockets ruffling his trousers’ back pocket…

A .410 handgun did it in the end. It was Diwali eve, and he bought her favorite sweets. As he wound his way through the dark road, humming a song, three gun shots twisted his gait into a red rivulet. Unarmed civilians were the best targets to drive home the demand for a separate state.

His cell phone, lying unclaimed with his corpse, beeped twice. There was just one eyewitness—a live, mute electric pole.

It was midnight when the police contacted her to identify the body.

[The End]

New Contest: Lonely Moon Short Fiction Contest

If the story left you a bit glum, here's something to cheer you up. Our gracious host, Jason Evans, is hosting yet another short fiction contest. Using the picture you see, write a story of 250 words or less. The deadline is August 29, 11 pm, EST. The details are here. Jason's contests keep getting better each time. This time, it takes a big leap with bestselling author, Anne Frasier, joining the event. Anne's new book, Pale Immortal, is going to be launched on September 5. And no less exciting is the fact that the winners of the Lonely Moon contest will get autographed copies of Pale Immortal as prizes.

What are we waiting for then? Let's get busy, writing!

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19 Aug 2006

At Home, Interviewed

I just received some bragging rights, thanks to Razib Ahmed of South Asia Biz, who interviewed me. South Asia Biz is a part of Know More Media, a rapidly growing online publisher of business information and news, and one of the world's leading business blog networks.

Thank you, Razib. :)

14 Aug 2006

Cricketing Sagas -- Imprinted

Cath, who passed me the AW chain baton, mentioned how it was during her first vacation without her family that she took to writing seriously. Evidently, she was in England with a group of friends when the incurable writing malady infected her. And alongside writing and frolicking with friends, Cath's post also talks about her watching county cricket.

Aha! Cricket. One of those words that make me smile naturally. For, the game of cricket is one of the biggest loves of my life. As I write this post on the eve of India's Independence Day, I can proudly say being passionate about cricket adds as much to my Indianness as the food I eat and the language I speak do.

The sport has become so integral to the Indian ethos, that in his book, The Tao of Cricket, eminent sociologist, Ashis Nandy, professes Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British...

So when my brother recently handed me this hefty tome as a belated birthday gift, I was elated beyond measure. Steve Waugh, the former Australian cricket captain, had remained my favourite for most of his cricketing career. Not just because of his skill with the game, but for his indomitable mental toughness and his commitment to social causes, which includes his work with an institute in India that is a haven for children of leprosy patients. I would always be stunned by his ability to singlehandedly rescue his team from near-losses. His record as captain is no less spectacular. Under his leadership, the Australian team became an impenetrable wall of attack, which no team in the world could match in terms of either flair or tactics.

That's about what I've managed to read of the book thus far. Admittedly, I am a slow reader and bulky books always intimidate me. But Waugh does a great job telling his life story—he maintains a conversational tone, is admirably honest, and gives a fascinating glimpse into facets of his personality that remained masked by cricket. For who could ever tell, this gritty player, who even came across as a cold and calculated strategist while leading his side, detested being in the spotlight? Or that he wrote long, wistful letters to his teenage love (and later his wife), while on his first tour outside home in England? Steve Waugh is also candid about the uneasy and somewhat strained relationship with his twin Mark, who himself was part of the same squad his brother captained, and has an illustrious track record to his credit.

Hopefully, I would finish the Waugh treatise in a few months. I must, because I also have to read the other two books you see in the picture. I am particularly interested in A Corner of a Foreign Field, which presents "The Indian history of a foreign sport."

What sports do you like? Does its history draw you? Or the life stories of its legends?

A sport teaches us so much, even if we don't play it.

And now, may I pass the baton to Matt at Mad Scientist Matt's Lair.

The entire chain:


Pass the Torch

The Road Less Travelled

Fireflies in the Cloud

Even in a Little Thing

The Secret Government Eggo Project

Curiouser and Curiouser

At Home, Writing

Mad Scientist Matt's Lair

I, Misanthrope - The Dairy of a Dyslexic Writer

Beyond the Great Chimney Production Log

Flying Shoes

Everything Indian

The Hal Spacejock Series

Organized Chaos

Of Chapters and Reels

Just a Small town girl

Midnight Muse

Kappa no He

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11 Aug 2006

Guest Blog - Bhupinder Singh

At Home, Writing is pleased to welcome its wonderful readers to the first Guest Blog. I am excited at the opportunity to learn from the perspective of fellow bloggers. I hope you all would enjoy interacting with these discerning guests too.

We begin with Bhupinder Singh's review of:

Santa Evita
By: Tomás Eloy Martínez

In the short span of six years between 1946 to 1952, Eva Perón, the wife of the Argentinean dictator and founder of the Perónist party, Juan Perón, won over the Argentinean people so much so that her popularity was said to rival, if not exceed, that of Juan Perón himself. Having risen from obscurity, the youngest daughter of an unwed mother, her rise had been all the more spectacular.

Tomás Eloy Martínez's Santa Evita could have been termed as a biographical account Eva Perón's life had the author chosen to write about her short but eventful life.

Instead, he has chosen to write about her corpse.

Eva Perón's body, like Lenin's, was embalmed after she died of cancer at the age of 33, at the height of her popularity. However, before the corpse could be housed in a mausoleum for public display, Juan Perón was overthrown in a military coup, and thus began the after- life journey of Eva Perón, as the incumbent military government wondered what to do with the embalmed body.

To bury the corpse could have, they feared, incited the loyal Perónists and even the masses. And Eva dead was perceived as more dangerous than the living one.

Even a few replicas were created to mislead any followers, and attempts were made to bury them. For over a decade, the corpse and the replicas changed hands and locations, traversing within Argentina and to Europe- one replica was buried in Bonn and the actual corpse in Milan, Italy from where it was finally recovered and returned to Juan Perón after his return from exile in Spain.

Martínez recounts the stories of all those that came in contact with the corpse, and the often calamitous ends that they came to. Insidious accidents awaited those entrusted with the corpse.

Some were haunted till death, some met with inexplicable accidents and others were relentlessly followed by a mysterious person called the 'Commander of Vengeance'.

It is characteristic of Martínez to write a novel that takes the after- life of Eva Perón rather than her not less eventful life as its theme. He does show us slices of her life too, but often as flashbacks and in recollections of those that he meets with.

In a sense, therefore, he underlines the persona that outlived Eva Perón herself.

This is akin to his previous novel, the redoubtable The Perón Novel, where he focused not so much on Peron's politically active years, but the seemingly innocuous journey of an exiled dictator returning to his home country in old age.

Santa Evita is a novel within a non- fictional account where Martínez goes out in search of information about Eva Perón's corpse- the story emerges as he interviews people associated with Eva or later with her restless corpse.

He makes the reader an accomplice in this journey of discovery- it becomes very much like a mystery in which the reader has as many, and more often as few, clues as the writer. This makes the novel extremely readable, if not racy.

Santa Evita turned out to be unputdownable, and I finished it within a week. Along with The Perón novel, it has been one of my best reads from Latin America in the last one year.

Note: Bhupinder Singh is the author of a reader's words--a blog encompassing a wide spectrum of the literary world. From Dalit literature to Latin American authors, and from regional Indian writers to Leftist writings, Bhupinder covers it all. His blog is not limited to just books and authors, though. The subtitle--comprising keywords such as literature, left, liberal, socialism, globalization, dalit, books, Urdu poetry, south Asia, India--is indicative of the inclusive nature of his blog.

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8 Aug 2006

See the New Skies

The results of the final round of the memoir contest I mentioned two weeks ago came out this morning. Of the seven finalists, one memoirist's tale got selected for being read by the editors of three top publishing houses. No, I am not the winner. But then I didn't expect to be. As I went through the amazing life stories of the other finalists, I felt my entry didn't deserve to win. Not selling myself short here. Only saying some of the other stories were almost crying out to appear in print. I am glad the judges chose one such story.

But that's not the point of this post.

Over the past couple of months, I have participated in five writing contests, including Jason's Midnight Road flash carnival. Of these, I didn't make the cut in one. In another one, my entry was accepted for publication in an anthology. Yet another one saw me competing against six talented memoir writers. The results of the other two are awaited. So in terms of results you could say I have had some "gains" by entering these contests. But the real gain has been far, far greater than winning or placing.

Each one of the contests saw me taking up a challenge, whether it was writing with precision, condensing memories into something readable, writing letters that would evoke emotions in the reader or pitching a story for a prestigious anthology. Each contest let the writing bird within me flap its wings to stretch them a bit more, ready to discover unseen skies.

Along with the writing side of the challenge came the discipline it entailed. That's one thing this memoir contest taught me really well. Once the first-round results were announced, the finalists had just one week to turn in another 2,800 odd words from their proposed memoir along with a 500-word synopsis. For me, who didn't have the wildest idea of making it through the first round, this was an excruciatingly tight deadline. I had to conceive a whole book out of the clouds in just a week? Then I also had to write nearly 3,000 words from it? And even draft the dreaded synopsis? Well, yes to all. And I did it. Whether my entry was up to the mark or not is another question, but at least I didn't back out of the challenge. There was no scope for that.

My greatest gain from entering these contests has been the feedback I've received from the judges and fellow contestants. Both Jason's contest as well as the memoir one were interactive in nature, making it possible for each entrant to read their competitors' works. There's tremendous positive energy in contests organized in this format. With all contestants encouraging and vibing for each other, while at the same time sharing thoughts about their writings, the contests acquire almost a festive spirit of bonding between fellow writers on individual journeys.

That can never be too bad.

1 Aug 2006

Mirror Thy Name

No, that's not a narcissistic expression. Look carefully, and you will notice it's an ambigram. If you turned the lettering upside down, it'll still read my name. The creator is the talented Balaji. His blog of ambigrams says, "Ambigrams are words of symmetry.They look the same when read upside down also.There are many types of ambigrams.I try to make ambigrams that look the same when rotated and ambigrams that read the same even on a mirror."

Balaji is passionate about creating ambigrams and does them free of cost if you request him. Do check him out.

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