31 Dec 2007

End of Year by Rabindranath Tagore

Today as I reached the silent peacefulness of this place, away from the clamor of the capital’s human assembly, the sky was covered in evening’s glow. Cloud clusters had lent a soft hue to the green of the forest by placing shadows on it; had I stayed in the capital, I couldn’t have seen so clearly, this face of the year’s last day that I saw here. There, a covering of whirlwind encircles everything; that covering hides the united form of beginning and end in creation. The music of human life needs to pause for returning to the start again and again. But amid the cacophony of crowd one feels that taan* after taan carries on, there’s no returning to the first beat. There, man moves with the crowd’s push; that movement is devoid of rhythm…When evening descends on a city, it can’t reveal itself, the day’s noise barges in to choke its voice. Daytime’s labor looks for crude excitement in evening’s leisure.

Tired of body and mind, I had thought I wouldn’t get entry into the year’s last day today. Suddenly, thick clouds caressed the woods; the expansive bliss spread across the horizon didn’t appear as emptiness, but as beauty. I see this evening filled to the brim with the wholeness that rests within the endless stream of the world’s work. In meditation I realized, that which I know as the end in the outside world, hides the seeds of new life in this place.

In every moment I see that life’s entire prosody is contained within conclusion. Without pause, rhythm would lose its identity…In mankind’s history, several civilizations have vanished after a period of grandeur. The reason was that those civilizations had lost the pause; they only scattered their enterprise, didn’t care to pick up the same…So the rhythm broke. The first beat came back in the wrong place, and it wasn’t cessation; it was destruction.

It is my good fortune to have come here today. In the city from which I returned, the evening’s face is that of frenzy, not of well-being. There, death’s identity has lost its solemnity. Human habitations make every effort to deny death. That’s the reason one can’t see the truth of death in such places…

May the end show us that face of liberation, which contains wholeness. Calmly I say, “Dear End, within you resides the infinite. I see in your eyes a trace of tear on this last day of the year; separation, dejection, and weary melancholy eclipse dusk’s darkness. Despite that, assimilating and crossing over all those, I hear your voice within and without. Om. The heart’s pain has only lent it beauty—tears haven’t dulled it, but made it gentler. Every evening, death reveals its calm and graceful face across the immense star-draped sky. Embracing it, we lay down—relieved—all the day’s burdens.

At the end of the year, I see that same vast face resting on the untiring, imperishable throne of darkness. I pay my obeisance to it.”

* Taan is a virtuosic technique used in the performance of a vocal raga in Hindustani classical music. It involves the singing of very rapid melodic passages on the syllable "a." It is similar to the technique ahaat, used in Arabic music. [From Answers.com]

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

23 Oct 2007


When the moon and the stars loom up there
You glow on the universe of your foliage--
As the world goes to sleep.

Silently you come, without a fuss;
No announcement, no flaunting of beauty
Not any attempt to hold the passerby spellbound.

In the morning, before the world rubs its bleary eyes,
You silently drop down,
No clinging, no worrying
about getting crushed under walking feet.

Yet, you draw us--
By your plain scent,
Your unassuming beauty,
Your amazing way with stopping passersby,
Bringing them down to their knees,
To pick you up gently.

You just smile, silently.

Note: Every autumn, the Shiuli, a small flower with white petals and orange stalk, blooms in different parts of India. This delicate flower blooms in the dead of night and by morning, drops off the branches. It has a soft, mild fragrance and heralds the biggest Bengali festival, Durga Puja.

4 Oct 2007

Writing Strengths Meme

Lately I had been thinking of writing a those-were-the-days post, reminiscing my days of youthful blogging—of learning from erudite fellow bloggers, of “wish-I-wrote-that” moments, of unconsciously smiling upon coming across a slice of a blogger friend’s life, of discovering new friends, and of being discovered. Of feeling humbled for coming across vastly more knowledgeable and perceptive bloggers who took the time to read my posts, and of keeping in touch with old pals splintered off a writing site that saw a sad demise.

Just when I was contemplating that post, Onipar, a gifted (I don’t say that lightly) horror writer and one of the most inspiring writing buddies I have seen spared me the sentimental outpour by tagging me for the Writing Strengths meme. The brief guideline for the meme is this:

Make a list of five strengths that you possess as a writer/artist. It's not really bragging, it's an honest assessment (forced upon you by this darn meme). Please resist the urge to enumerate your weaknesses, or even mention them in contrast to each strong point you list. Tag four other writers or artists whom you'd like to see share their strengths.

I laughed at first. Like many other aspiring authors, I wondered if I had even three strong points as a writer. In the end, I could think of five, though. Here they are:

1) Faith: This isn’t just a strong sense of hope that I will be a published writer some day. This is deeper. It’s the heart’s connection with my writing itself. Faith in what I write and what it means to me. When I write drafts, the writing quality may be (and usually is) pathetic, the style stilted, the grammar unsure. But in the midst of all that I see a reflection of my inner world, merging at once with the world around me. I guess this is the most important element of my writing life.

2) Perseverance: Oni calls it courage. I will go with the more conventional term. All true writers persevere; it’s not really an option for them, it’s just part of the game. The odds are high and keep going higher, rejections come slamming on your face, finances play hide-n-seek with you, and you are in an arena even more uncertain than gambling or lottery. But you plug on, driven by a strange rush, aiming for a star many galaxies away.

3) Voice: Most of the feedback I have received on my writing has mentioned this facet. It’s a fusion of the social milieu I come from and the cultural sensibilities I have absorbed over the years. I write what I know; my lack of international experience makes my English writing a translated rendition of the Indian life I have known and seen.

4) Humanity: This isn’t to imply my writing is humane. It’s just to say my writing is mostly drawn from life—mine and of those falling within my immediate, extended, or distant environment. The best of writers, those who have told stories of ordinary people and their trials and triumphs are not preachers trying to teach the basics of a just society to the world at large. Nor are they messiahs, offering solutions for the repressions they witness. They are mirrors, reflecting us just the way we are—fair or ugly (not in the literal sense, of course).

5) Student: I am a lifelong learner when it comes to writing. Having a student’s outlook helps me remain open to advice and smart enough to glean benefit from even not-so-positive feedback. I have seen the results over the years; they aren’t too bad.

So there. I can now officially thank Oni for bringing me out of my self-imposed blog exile. Writing is the reason this blog is facing neglect. I am choking with freelance work and other assignments to the extent where I only find scraps of time to work on my personal writing projects. Since the blog is less demanding than those pesky projects, it waits patiently. Until a friend nudges me to return to it. 

Who do I tag? Lisa, Alicia, Bob, and John Baker.

5 Sept 2007

"I relived my last 25 years while writing this book"

Interview with Abhay K, author of River Valley to Silicon Valley. To visit Abhay's blog, click here:

What inspired you to write River Valley to Silicon Valley? Please share the experience of writing the book with us.

AK: I had made a promise to myself that I should have my own book before I turn 25. I was going to turn 25 on 1st March 2005 and I was so anxious to tell the world that how Indian democracy and economic reforms that are taking place in India are bringing real and concrete changes in the Indian society by citing example of three generations of my own family. I wanted to write this book at this stage of my life and not later because I feared that I’ll lose my innocence and simplicity after getting immersed into the bureaucratic world of which I had become a part after passing the Civil Services Exam in 2003. I also wanted to share my family’s story with millions of young Indians who were in the schools, colleges and universities and inspire them to dream big. I wanted to gift a book to my young friends in India and abroad who struggle every day for a better tomorrow, who do not have a level playing field, who want to move forward overcoming all obstacles.

I wrote this book between November 2005 and February 2006 in Moscow, mostly post mid-night when the city went off to sleep, and I could peacefully take a journey back in time. Those days I was learning the Russian language at the Center of International Education at the Moscow State University and I had to do a lot of assignments everyday. The only spare time I was left with was after the mid-night. I wrote this book almost regularly for four months except the last ten days of December 2005 and a few days in the beginning of January 2005 when I was traveling in Europe with my friends.

There is a saying that writers live twice and I completely agree with that. I relived my last 25 years while writing this book, as flashes of my past played in mind and turned into words on my notebook. Just to add, I was highly inspired by “The Outsider” by Albert Camus and “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, not only by the content of these books but also by their size. Both these books have around 100 pages each and are easy to read and carry. I too wanted a small book that was easy to read so that a normal reader would not get scared just looking at its size and had the psychological satisfaction of finishing the book in a few days. Somehow, unnecessary details in some novels irritate me and make the whole experience of reading a very boring for me. What really attracts me is a rich story with a flow without unnecessary details unconnected with the story. This is what I wanted to bring out in my book. I must share with you how overjoyed I felt the day I completed my book even while I had no idea whether it will ever be published. I felt triumphant as perhaps there is no greater joy in life than the joy of creating something. Writing itself can be such a joy if it comes from inside, if one has the feeling that one must write.

I felt the book should be read by every young Indian who dares to dream big. What feedback have you received from the book's young readers? This would include your brother and your friends.

AK: I have received very encouraging comments and reviews about the book from across the globe. In fact I have collected their comments and reviews like precious diamonds and put them together on my website (www.abhayk.com) for readers. One may read all the comments by clicking on the following link-

Link for the Book Reviews- http://www.abhayk.com/Books.php

Have your parents read the book? If yes, what did they have to say?

AK: The book is dedicated to my great father who passed away in July 2006, but he knew all along about this book. In fact, he is the silent narrator of first few pages as all that I came to know about the life of the first and the second generation of my family was through him. He was a great story teller like my grandma. Sadly, he could not see its publication and release.

My mother is waiting for the Hindi translation of the book to read it. Professor Pushpesh Pant from JNU is working on the Hindi translation, and it should be ready by the end of this year.

How are you marketing the book?

AK: These days I am posted in St. Petersburg as Consul of India, far away from my country and I have left it to the publishers to market the book. A thousand copies of the first edition of the book was printed out of which 500 copies have already been sold.
The book can be ordered from anywhere in the world from Linuxbazar.com clicking at the following link http://www.linuxbazar.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=33_82&products_id=18713
The book can also be purchased from the major bookshops in the big cities of India or can be ordered by writing to Bookwell India at the following address- 24/4800,Ansari Road,Darya Ganj, New Delhi-110002, India, Ph-91-1123268786.

I am thinking of bringing out a second edition of the book with a different publisher by the beginning of the next year. I would welcome suggestions from readers to market “River Valley to Silicon Valley” in a better way.

What other writing/publishing projects are you working on these days?

AK: I have written more than a hundred poems during the last two years of my stay in Moscow. I have sent publishing proposals to a number of Poetry publishers in UK, USA and India. I am still waiting for their reply.

Currently, I am working on two books. They deal with different themes. The first book is based in India and tells the chilling story of a young girl from the beginning to the end. The second book is based in the post-Soviet Russia and explores the psychological undercurrents of the Russian society in recent years.

How did you get your book published?

AK: First time writers have always difficulties in publishing their work, and I had to wait for more than a year after writing the book to get it published. I sent the manuscript of my book to many publishers in India who are still kind enough to receive the book directly from the authors unlike in UK or USA where they only receive manuscripts through literary agents. Most of the publishers in India and literary agents in UK turned it down because they could not find anything sensational in my book. Finally, Bookwell India decided to publish 1,000 copies for of the book in April 2007.

The publishing industry has its own business interests in mind. so for them good writing or average writing do not make a difference if the writing can bring in good money. Thus, today the world may never get to know many good writers and poets whose precious works keep biting dust for years until they are discovered or forever if not discovered. The influence of big budget publishing houses do distort the writing trend in the world as more and more people want to write that has the commercial value and not essentially humane values.

How is “River Valley to Silicon Valley” being received outside India?

AK: The book has been translated into Russian and soon a thousand copies will be printed for young Russian readers.
The book has generated interest in UK, USA, Australia, Poland and South Korea. It is also being translated into Korean by a young Korean who wants to share this Indian story with young South Koreans.

24 Aug 2007

River Valley to Silicon Valley: Book Review

RIVER VALLEY TO SILICON VALLEY: Story of three generations of an Indian family
By Abhay K.
Available at: bookwell@vsnl.net.in

Dreamers abound this world. In lands spread over all the habitable continents, people dream of living lives bigger than their circumstances allow them. Some dreams are material in nature, some more romantic and soul-filling. I reckon the world is a better place for the dreamers it holds. For, in most cases, dreams, those intangible pieces of impossible ideas, are what lead to the most awesome of deeds. In River Valley to Silicon Valley, Abhay K proves that.

As the book’s subtitle says, it’s the “story of three generations of an Indian family.” Although focused on Abhay’s family, it also tells the story of India’s changing social-scape. Beginning with the tale of the writer’s grandfather and his rural farm life in newly-independent India, the book moves on to recounting his father’s extraordinary determination to receive education and ameliorate village conditions. The book finally brings readers face to face with Abhay and his elder brother as they step out of the village to script their twin destinies in India’s capital—Abhay as an Indian Foreign Service diplomat and his brother as an executive in a multinational corporation.

On the face of it, River Valley to Silicon Valley is just a portrayal of a middle class Indian family’s passage from agriculture to modern vocations, and from breaking barriers within the village to touching stars outside its boundaries. The book, however, is a lot more than that. It’s a testimony of what unflinching self-belief and stubborn focus can lead to—living one’s dream, no matter how far-fetched it may appear in the beginning. As it narrates the story of Abhay and his family in a simple, unpretentious voice, the book stealthily plants the seeds of dreaming big in the reader. Not a bad bargain, that.

The book may not score highly in the show-vs-tell or grammar department. But it is a book with a soul. For this reader, River Valley to Silicon Valley is any day a better pick than soulless books with perfect grammar.

Thanks for writing this honest, inspiring gem, Abhay.

Coming Up: An interview with Abhay K. Stay tuned!

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

27 Jun 2007

Rain's Letter by Rabindranath Tagore

Dear Friend,

Living as you do amid the desert of Sindh country, imagine the monsoons in Calcutta.

In this letter, I remind you of Bengal’s rain…Ponds swelling with water, mango orchards, wet crows, and ashadhe tales. And if you can recall Ganga’s bank, then think of the cloud’s shadow on the streaming water and of the Shiva temple located within the peepul tree under the cloud cover. Think of the veiled village women who fill water from the backside banks, getting drenched as they make their way home through the bamboo briars, passing paathhshalas and cowsheds; think of how the rain splashes in from a distance by placing its feet over the waving crop fields; first on the mango orchards at the end of the field, then on the bamboo backwoods; next, every single hut, every village fades out behind monsoon’s transparent cover, little girls sitting before huts clap and invite the rain with their songs—ultimately, the downpour captures all land, all forest, all village into its snare. Unceasing rain—in the mango fields, bamboo bushes, river; on the head of the boatman sitting crumpled as he flinches while wrapping his blanket. And in Calcutta rain falls at Ahiritola, Kansharipara, Teriti Market, Borobazaar, Shova Bazaar, Harikrishna’s Lane, Motikrishna’s Lane, Ramkrishna’s Lane, Zigzag Lane—on mansion roofs, shops, trams, the head of buggy coach drivers and so on.

These days it doesn’t rain heavily, like it used to in our childhood. Today’s rain has no grandeur of the past, it is as if the monsoon season is focusing on economy—it’s on its way out after sprinkling a little water—just some gluey mud, some drizzle, a bit of inconvenience. One can manage the entire rainy season with a torn umbrella and a pair of shoes from the China bazaar. I don’t see the revelry of the yesteryears thunder, lightning, rain, and breeze. Rains of the past had a song and dance, a rhythm and a beat—these days monsoon seems to be gripped by the jaws of ageing, by ideas of calculation and bookkeeping, by concerns of catching a cold. People say it’s only a sign of me growing old.

Perhaps it is that. Every age has a season; perhaps I am past that. In one’s youth it’s spring, in old age autumn, and in one’s childhood, rain. We don’t love the home as much as we do in our childhood. The monsoon season is for staying at home, imagining, listening to stories, playing with one’s siblings. In the darkness of the rain, far-fetched folklores assume a degree of truth. The screen of a thick downpour seems to put a cover on the world’s office activities. There are fewer wayfarers on the streets, fewer crowds, the usual busy-ness isn’t visible in places—the doors of houses are shut, coverings drape offices and shops…

…I remember, during rainy days I would run across our sprawling verandah—the door banged with the wind, the giant tamarind tree shook with all its darkness, the courtyard welled up with water up to one’s knees, water from four tin taps on the terrace gushed forth with a thud to join the courtyard water…Back then flowers bloomed on our keya tree beside the pond (the tree is no more). During the rains, when the steps on the pond’s bank vanished one by one, finally the water flooding in to the garden—when the clustering heads of the bel flower plant stayed upright above the water and the pond fish played around the water-logged trees in the garden, at that time, I raised my dhoti to the knee and imagined romping around the garden. In rainy days, when one remembered school what a gloom clasped one’s heart, and if Mastermoshai ever knew what one thought upon suddenly spotting his umbrella at the end of the lane from one’s verandah…I hear these days many students think of their teachers as friends and dance with delight at the thought of going to school. Perhaps this is a good sign. But it seems there are a growing number of boys who don’t love play, rain, home, and holidays—boys who don’t love anything in this wide world besides grammar and geographic descriptions. The sharp rays of civilization, intellect, and knowledge, it seems, is making the population of innocent children dwindle, replacing it with precocity.

Ashadhe tales = Improbable, fantastical stories

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Photo courtesy: http://www.chitambo.com/clouds/cloudshtml/precipitation.html

23 Jun 2007

A Song in the Cloud--Kajri

In his comment to my previous post, Abhay said, "Rains bring some of the most original emotions." I think that holds especially true in a tropical setting like India, where the prolonged and scorching summer makes the monsoon season one of the most awaited and treasured. Consequently, the metaphor of rain makes its appearance in all things creative--painting, literature, music, cinema. Rains here evoke a host of emotions, from joyous outbursts that sing with the dancing greens to pangs of separation from one's lover that cry with every burst of lightning and thunder. The latter translates into a particular form of folk/semi-classical music called Kajri.

Sung in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Kajri has a popular legend associated with it. According to folklore of Mirzapur, a place in UP, a woman named Kajli had to live in separation from her husband, who lived in a faraway land. She would miss him all the time, but when thick clouds splashed monsoon showers across the land, the estrangement became unbearable for her. She is believed to have taken her petition to a certain goddess Kajmal with her wailing. The other origin story comes from the Hindi word kajal, meaning kohl. The colour black is related to the dark clouds of monsoon, which in this case, bring relief.

If folk beats and earthy melody interest you, listen to a selection of Kajri here.



18 Jun 2007

The Wait

I waited for you.

I waited through days that won’t turn into nights.

I waited even as others fled, unable to bear the separation.

I waited with the still, suffocating air that drained out my senses.

For you I survived, barely alive, yet expectant, when others died.

I waited when the prophets said you would take a long time coming.


And then, you came.

You brought the cool brush of night right into the day.

You embraced me with a smile; my reward for not deserting you.

You changed the very complexion of the air with your every stance.

You put life back into dead, parched souls with your lush strokes.

You came for me, defying the prophets.

You came.

Dearest Rain.

13 Jun 2007

Wole Soyinka

Came across a good interview of Wole Soyinka in The Hindu. The Nigerian Nobel laureate makes a couple of thought-provoking points. One: Real writers write, no matter the circumstances they are in or their state of mind at any given point of time. And two, intellectual analysis of a writer's isolation or persecution often becomes an exercise in fantasizing reality.

He also makes an interesting, if debatable, point on responding to violence with violence.

Read the full interview here.

7 Jun 2007

Living Conversations

Capturing the life, sensibilities, and works of a person—that’s what biographies and autobiographies are made of. But could there be another way to bring to life the essence of an individual? If the book I am reading these days is anything to go by, the answer is yes, emphatically at that.

Shilpi Ramkinkar Alapchari
or In Conversation with Ramkinkar by Somendranath Bandopadhyay (review promised later) is an amazing read. An intriguing glimpse into the mind and heart of one of India’s most revered sculptor-artists, the book is neither a biography nor a series of interviews; yet perhaps it is more than either. The curious thing is that the book cannot be strictly classified into any type. Like Ramkinkar Baij’s life and art, it transcends stale definitions. As I read through this informal set of dialogues the author and the artist shared over the course of a year, I wonder what is it that keeps me—someone who has no background in visual arts—so hooked to the book? I have nailed some of the reasons:

1) Interesting subject: For me, this is the strongest aspect of the book. The author chose to record his interactions with a person who has such an original voice that is sure to pull a reader. Ramkinkar’s free-spirit, touching diffidence, ability to remain untouched by both praise and censure of the highest order, and his child-like innocence and absentmindedness—all these make him so “approachable” for the reader. The author does an admirable job of bringing Ramkinkar as he was, mainly because he keeps the sculptor’s voice intact.

"To tell you the truth, I have found everything from life—no less than twelve annas, could be more. All these things that surround me, the fields, village people, the everyday life of Santhals—all this. Just see all the drama that goes on through the year. Keep your eyes and ears open—and see—fill your two eyes to the brim—soak in all you want to. How much can an artist take during his lifetime anyway?"

2) Distinct voices: Another facet that makes this ongoing conversation so engaging for the reader is the difference in the author’s and the artist’s voices. Bandopadhyay has done a superb job of distinguishing the two voices—his own marked by cultivated sophistication, Ramkinkar’s by unrestrained expression. This only fits the nature of the book—telling us two different people are talking to each other about a shared interest.

This morning, I am a bit late in coming to him. I enter; a little ashamed. He is looking for something. Every now and then, his hands reach under the pillow. Hearing the sound at the door, he looks up. A lost look.

“Where did it go? I’d kept it here only. Saw it in the morning too. Just a while ago.”

“What is it? Have you lost something?”

“A two-rupee note, my dear—red note, small. Trouble is, there’s no bidi. The container is empty. I think there were some bidis in it. Vanished.”

“Shall I look?”

“Do, please.”

No, Kinkarda’s said red note is nowhere to be found. I search everywhere. At last, a torn-cover notebook comes out—from under the bed sheet. If anywhere, the note has to be inside it. In between the folds of small chits. One says “two matchboxes,” another “Charminar—1 packet." The dates are very old. Suddenly, I notice a folded red something. Yes, it’s money. Not a two-rupee note, though, but a cheque. After the first figure, multiple zeros stand in a row. But the date? Like in those chits, it elapsed long ago.

“You found it?” Kinkarda eyes it, too. His animated eyes gleam with the joy of discovery.”

“Not a note; this is a cheque.”

“Oh, I thought we found it.” Kinkarda becomes frustrated again.

A fat-amount cheque lies in neglect under the covers. The man is restless over a small red note.

The bidi arrives, though. The co-operative store is right in front of his house.

With a gladdened heart, he rotates a bidi in his fingers before putting it into his mouth. Shaky fingers light a matchstick. He releases the smoke in a long, satisfied swirl.

“What’s that book in your hands?”

“Jacob Epstein.”

“Wah, wah! It has plates, I hope?”

“Of course.”

He looks at ‘Rima’ intently. Then, ‘The Day and the Night’. For a long time. The bidi smoke keeps ebbing out, until it disappears. He dumps the unconsumed dying bidi in the container and holds the book up with both hands.

“Do you see what he has done?”

Loving respect lights Kinkarda’s face. His eyes run over the sculptures so familiar to him, as if he is shedding affection on them with his joyful glance.

3. Author’s passion for the main theme: I believe that’s the basis of this conversation. The author, in spite of serving as a professor of Bengali literature in Shantiniketan, happens to be a passionate art enthusiast and has written an important book on Tagore’s art. His conversation with a great sculptor becomes so lively only because he himself is a lover of the subject and has studied it deeply. The author shows a fine appreciation for Ramkinkar’s works and doesn’t shy away from sharing his unease over a few finer points of some of the sculptor’s greatest works.

“I really like that work (The Storm) of yours. I like it because of its stunning vitality. The pulse of life in the two girls’ figures is of course there, but what really astounds me is the soft smile in that hard rock…

But I have a doubt, Kinkarda. Been having it for a long time now. I have thought of talking to you about it. Couldn’t muster the courage. Now that I have the chance, may I?

That boy’s figure. It feels as if it has been forcibly added. I have seen it carefully a lot of times. Tried to understand the work. Somehow, the boy’s figure isn’t in sync with the rhythm of the women’s figures. Even though I like the figure, I like his stance.”

Kinkarda keeps quiet. For a long time. He must be thinking of something with closed eyes, or revolving around his creation in his mind’s eye.

“There’s vitality in the boy’s figure, too. But I can’t totally dismiss your observation, my dear. No, no, you are right. Right you are…

Listen then.

The folds behind the girls’ saris’ ends—do you know how much those weigh? They are loaded with iron and concrete. It’s very difficult to keep them floating. You are seeing the end is flying; you see it with light ease. And me? I had sunk under the pressure of those folds. How do I keep those ends flying? A sculptor has to think about these practical things. I was harried with those sari ends. Ha, ha, ha. In the end, I added that boy. It’s a support. I even gave him my flute. To stand there, touching the sari ends.”
4. Description of setting: The author’s literary bent comes into full view when he recounts the atmosphere in each chapter. Not just the surroundings, but the atmosphere of Ramkinkar’s face, his typical mannerisms, his loud laughter—all recreate the different hues of moods the author had experience as he chatted with the genius sculptor.

20, Andrews Palli. Kinkarda lives in this house now.

He sits in the front room by the small slice of verandah. Sitting, sleeping—all in this room. The door is ajar. It stays like that all the while. Looking at the near dark, silent room it’s hard to believe Kinkarda is here at the moment. Can he ever be compared to this deafening silence?

The very mention of this name brings up so many images in the mind.

Kalabhavan premises. Kinkarda sits under a tree during some free moments off his teaching. A bunch of curious students from different countries huddle him. A thunderous guffaw booms out of this engrossed assembly and stuns passersby.

Kinkarda stands on an elevated platform. He wears a saffron lungi, a tal-leaf toka on his head, his lips sealed. The tireless hammer and chisel in his hands break the afternoon stillness. A newly-born sculpture faces him with a hard concrete body. There’s no measure of time.

Is it any wonder that the more I read this book, the more I feel I know Ramkinkar, the free man, the marvelous sculptor, intimately?

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


The Speculist

1 Jun 2007

Fresh Connections

Just when I thought my blog wasn't living up enough to connect with readers (I am to blame for that in part--in recent times I have been at best a semi-active blogger), Sid Leavitt of Readers and writers blog, an interactive universe of the written word, as the subtitle says, came with a gentle reassurance. By selecting At Home, Writing as one of the featured blogs on his site, with a kind and affectionate review, Sid told me this blog is still touching a few heartstrings. Always a joy to know that.

Friends, in a blogosphere cramped by barely literate fans fawning over celebrities and barely literate celebrities pandering to fans, there’s a wide open world indeed waiting in weblogs like At Home, Writing.
Even more delightful was discovering the Readers and Writers blog itself, an excellent venue to bring readers and writers together. To have found a place in his blogroll--which features Bernita's brilliant and classy An Innocent A-Blog--is indeed an honour for me.

Thank you, Sid. For taking At Home to the world.

29 May 2007

Song of the Red Road

An unbound auburn road bears songs not washed away by the gust of time; songs the sage poet sang to extol the road’s hypnotic effect on the weary traveler’s mind. The road lives, the songs live, too. The road and its songs are one now.
That ruddy road down the village makes my heart stray.
Who does the hand reach out to, only to roll over the dust?

The road makes its own way, unrestricted and haphazard and comes to meet its friend, the giant banyan tree. She knows the sun likes to play behind it, splashing its gleam through the banyan’s curtains.
When I first met that banyan tree, its leaves were the green color of spring. The sky’s fugitive light would flash through its gaps and embrace earth’s shadows on the grass. After that ashadh’s rain came; like the clouds its leaves became somber. Today the pile of leaves is akin to the mature intelligence of the elderly, no outside light can pervade its gaps… This morning, she said to me, dangling her enormous emerald necklace, “Why are you sitting with all those bricks and stones on your head? Come all out in the open like me!”

After sharing her pleasure-pain tales with the banyan, the red road curves toward the shal forests. There, inebriated trees oscillate on the wayward wind’s notes.

This felt nice, this dance of light on leaves
The wild shalbon storm makes my heart quiver.

Haat commuters dart through the auburn road,

A little girl sits alone on the dust and spreads her toys
All this that I see before me strikes the cords of my heart’s veena.

The sun has stopped its play for the day. Dusk joins the red road as she makes her way to commune with her people—those who know the soil and the forests as dear friends. Santhal villagers greet the road with their earthy smile and rustic songs.

The Santhal girl comes and goes
through the pebble-strewn road by the Shimul tree.
A thick sari tightly wraps her dark, slim body.

One of god’s absent-minded artisans

must have lost his way while creating a black bird

and perusing ingredients from monsoon’s clouds and lightning

fashioned that woman.

Then night comes—with the glow of intermittent fireflies flickering through the invisible marshes along pale green ponds. The auburn road doesn’t stop. It continues to sing—all out in the open—where day and night, past and present, work and play are enmeshed with the One.

All of the above is a languid reminiscing of my journey to Shantiniketan in March.

Note: All quoted text written by Rabindranath Tagore, translated feebly by Bhaswati Ghosh.

8 May 2007

Subodh Ghosh: Master of Shorts

Great storytellers often tell stories that can be adapted for big and small screens. Some write with that idea in mind, others just spin the yarns they must. While the unceasing debate on how sincere the moving picture adaptation is to the written work carries on, I have to admit, I came to know quite a few writers via the moving images. Subodh Ghosh is one of them.

As a regular follower of a televised series of short stories by different Bengali writers aired on one of the Bengali channels here, I noticed the stories that particularly drew me had one thing in common—their author. Subodh Ghosh’s stories would prick the psyche for days, even while other stories had an impression life of just a few hours. Thhagini or The Con Girl was the first of these stories. When I saw it, the story stunned me for its original approach to the oft-done theme of deception. In the story, a father-daughter duo lives off deceiving unsuspecting victims. Their trick is simple—they pose as a family facing abject penury, the father unable to wed his very marriageable daughter. They keep changing neighbourhoods, carrying along the same story. In every area, some kind man takes pity to their situation, and the girl gets married, usually to a prosperous man. Within the next couple of days, she smartly flees the place, not without the cash and jewelry she begets as the new bride. This keeps happening, and even as the police are desperate to catch the father and daughter, Sudha, the girl, actually falls prey to the love of her third “husband”. In bittersweet irony, she flees again and deceives again—only this time, she runs with her husband and cheats no one else, but her father.

Although I thought Thhagini was the first Subodh Ghosh story that moved me to read more of his work, it turns out he had made an impression on me long ago. In the form of Ijazat, Gulzar’s sensitive adaptation of Ghosh’s Jatugriha (Lac House). Later, of course I would watch the Bengali screen version of the film directed by Tapan Sinha, starring Uttam Kumar, equally sensitive and closer to the original story. And years before that, the thoughtful Bimal Roy made one of the finest films out of Sujata, a novel by Ghosh of the same name. To date, Sujata, the film, remains one of my favourites for its perceptive handling of the issue of caste prejudice and for Roy’s delicate portrayal of a woman’s emotions.

Not just Tapan Sinha, Bimal Roy, and Gulzar, but even Ritwik Ghatak turned to Subodh Ghosh’s work for one of his films—Ajantrik. As little as I have read of Bengali literature, Subodh Ghosh got my vote, thanks to the wonderful screen adaptations of his stories by these brilliant directors.

As I read through an anthology of Subodh Ghosh stories, I am impressed by the realism, the extraordinary insight into the quirks of human nature and the way they play out in relationships, and one of the best weapons of a writer--a deft touch of irony.

1 May 2007

Remembering Kolkata: Eating: Flurys

A city of bizarre contrasts, Kolkata doesn't let a visitor go without evoking strong reactions. One moment you hate the city with fuming rage, the next second you feel affectionate toward it. Among the things that make you cling to this enigmatic city is the opportunity to eat good food at no great loss to your wallet.


Is a vignette of Kolkata's glorious eating traditions, going back to when the city was Calcutta. More than 80 years ago by Mr. and Mrs. J. Flury set up this British-style tea shop in the eastern Indian city. The building was renovated a few years ago and stands in the heart of Kolkata's downtown--the pulsating Park Street.

"Do try to keep an evening free for coffee at Flurys," I had been advised. Most of the trip had gone by without heeding that advice. As we entered the last week of our stay in Kolkata, I grew fidgety. How could I leave without eating at Flurys? I had been planning this for months. So one humid evening, we set out to discover the British eating experience. Taking the metro to Park Street meant we literally had to work up an appetite by walking a fair distance as evening wore down to dusk. Once inside, the trek seemed worthwhile.

The atmosphere is elegant yet informal. A great venue for relaxed conversation and some delectable bites. I ordered a cup of cappuccino, a cinnamon roll and a chicken patties. Hey, I did say I walked long to reach this place. I deserved to indulge a bit, did I not? Both my choices proved delicious. The roll was a fluffy, crispy dough, packed with raisins and nuts and smeared with powered sugar on top. The patties wasn't dripping in oil, yet, packed with wholesome minced chicken cooked to perfection.

Flurys has an extensive cakes and pastries collection, along with European chocolates. I am not much of a sugar addict, so I didn't buy any, but these are highly recommended for those with a sweet tooth or two.

An evening well spent and tucked neatly into the memory files. As I passed by the gossamer reflections of a Flurys evening, I thanked my advisers.

27 Apr 2007

Script the Trip

My notebook filled with journal entries of the Bengal trip sits before me. When I left, I decided to bring back a few travel stories with me. You see, I have always dreamt of being a travel writer—that free-spirited entity which gets to traverse unseen lands and hears unknown languages and eventually gets paid for that. What little travel writing I have read always left me enchanted—not just with the places and peoples they introduced, but with the writer, whose deft touch magically brought those places and people to life.

Magicians those writers must be, for it isn’t easy to recapture your journey in a way that makes it compelling for others. I realize this as I open the journal and try to spin some tales out of it. My voyage remains interesting to me for sure, but what will make it as appealing to readers? In my quest to find the answer to that question, I did some online research. This included looking at the kind of writing travel markets seek to publish. The guidelines were as varied as the writing styles of noted travel writers. Where some wanted a passionate first-hand account of one’s journey, others strictly prohibited the use of first person. Yet others simply wanted travel brochure type information—how/when to go, what to see, what to buy etc.

Me, I personally enjoy reading first person travel accounts. Of course the best of writings don’t highlight the writer as the main character, but rather as a mirror, which reflects a particular geographical setting with a signature hue or tint that is the author’s perspective. Such narratives pull you into the writer’s original experience, since it’s the one thing that would remain unique, even while the place continues to be generic, outwardly speaking. I aspire to be such a travel writer. The quest is on, although, I have scripted the first of my tales. Writing itself is the best education for a writer, and besides practicing that part, I’ve been reading a Granta Book of Travel which features authors like Bruce Chatwin, Amitav Ghosh, and Salman Rushdie. I also found some great online help:

Published writer Peter Moore shares his travel writing secrets.

Jennifer Stewart has some great tips on the genre.

And finally, a comprehensive guide by journalist Anika Scott.

What’s your take on sharing travel tales and travel travails with others? Tell me; I am listening.

10 Apr 2007

Project for Red: A Child Without A Voice

Wandering Author is a talented writer and a gentle soul. His blog posts come with introspective insights and reflections. It's been my good fortune to share his journey and spirit on the blogsphere. Now, WA has come up with a project for which I cannot appreciate him enough. The thoughtful author is calling upon fellow writers to help him compile and publish a book to raise funds for Red, a four-year-old who can't speak. Red is fellow blogger Anna's son and suffers from apraxia, a speech disorder in which a person has trouble saying what he or she wants to say correctly and consistently.

Enormous thanks for doing this, WA. I hope we can all contribute in little and big ways to help Red find his voice.

4 Apr 2007

Oh Calcutta!

On April 1, our 25-day heart-stirring in parts and disappointing in places Bengal trip came to an end. During the voyage:

I learned what it is like to travel by air. When those machine birds fly overhead, I don’t look up in awe and wonder any more. Now I look to them with a knowing smile.

I learned even though Delhi, my city of birth, holds the notorious distinction as the city of thugs, deception of gullible tourists by smart city agents is a universal phenomenon. Dear Kolkata is no exception to the rule. (The taxi driver who took us from the airport to my uncle’s house in south Calcutta drove us long enough to charge us nearly double the actual fare.)

I learned rude station officials make me lose patience faster than the quickest running train on the network.

I learnedthe exhilaration of train trips across Bengal’s countryside hasn’t worn down for me through all these years.

I learned even though the ethos created and nurtured by Rabindranath Tagore at the inception of Shantiniketan has eroded beyond measure, the place still reverberates with Tagore’s “echoing green” spirit. The chord that keeps pulling me back to it.

I learned that affable rickshaw-wallahs in Shantiniketan more than make up for the rude station officials of Kolkata. Anwar, our rickshaw-puller-cum-guide became a friend in three days.

I learned part of me hurts to be enjoying a journey through lush green fields tilled with the farmer's labour and love when police firing kills villagers trying to hold on to their land. (The Nandigram firing incident happened on the day we reached Shantiniketan.)

I learned that looking wide-eyed at endless stretches of paddy fields across Bengal is an activity I will never tire of. While traveling through these landscapes I for once wished the journey would never end. I was in no hurry to arrive at the destination.

I learned that some of the tourist lodges run by the West Bengal government need major overhauling—both in infrastructure as well as in the management’s outlook.

I learned popular Indian pilgrimages can make for the worst of travel destinations. I am not pious enough to overlook lack of hygiene, obnoxious pandas (touts swarming religious places), and the histrionics of overzealous devotees.

While visiting the terracotta temples of Bishunupur, I learned in awe how sound architectural wonders were built in 17th century within the constraints of that time. It’s no surprise as to why these temples have held their ground not just architecturally, but also as exquisite works of art.

I learned the weaver creates a piece of fine Baluchari silk sari after painstaking days on the loom, but in the end earns just a small piece of the fat income his employer gets.

I learned Kolkata is truly a foodie’s paradise. If you love eating, make money in a place that has a higher per capita income. Then go spend your savings on food in Kolkata.

I learned Kolkata is in general a safe place for women, and I admired that. Sadly, I cannot say the same about the city in which I live.

I learned there's not a single soul in Kolkata that's not passionate about cricket. From vegetable vendors to book sellers in College Street and coffee drinkers at Coffee House, everyone was seen discussing detailed ramifications of the World Cup points table.

I learned no matter which city we live in or how different it is from other places, we are still the same everywhere. We are one in the final tally. And that’s all that counts.

I learned.

6 Mar 2007

Ready to Fly

In the course of becoming a bad-to-worse blogger, making turtle-rate progress with my WIP, trying to become a serious freelance writer, and nursing a sore knee, I managed to steal 25 days for a vacation. Am off tomorrow, to Bengal.

All five senses are alert and excited. I hope it turns out a trip to remember.

I will miss you all. Honest.

24 Feb 2007

They Died for their Langauge: Ekushey February

How important is language for any community? Is it secondary to other facets of identity like religion, culture and race? If one looked at the history of Bangladesh—a country born out of its people’s deep-rooted identification with their mother tongue, Bangla (or Bengali), the answer would be a resounding no. Ekushey (meaning twenty-one in Bangla) February marks the genesis of a movement that established language as the primary force that binds a community. Such was the impact of this movement that a whole nation was carved out on linguistic and cultural lines; even though the people shared the same religion (Islam) with other citizens of the country they were initially part of.

In 1947, India’s independence from British rule came at a steep cost. The country was divided on the basis of religions into India and Pakistan. The latter officially became a Muslim state, while the Indian constitution laid down secular foundations for the country’s people.

Pakistan found itself in a somewhat tricky situation. The country had two provinces—West and East, which were distanced not just by geography, but also by language and culture. East Pakistanis, who formed a majority of Pakistan’s populace, spoke Bangla as opposed to the Urdu spoken by the people of West Pakistan. The country’s government declared Urdu as the official language, even though the majority of people didn’t communicate in that language. In fact, it was even proposed that Bengali documents should be written in Arabic script. Understandably East Pakistanis weren’t amused at the idea. A movement, mainly spearheaded by students and supported by other members of the intelligentsia, gathered momentum. Sensing the magnitude of the simmering unrest, the government clamped down by declaring Section 144, under which all public meetings were deemed illegal.

When defying the ban, students of Dhaka University took out a peaceful procession on February 21, 1952, the police opened fire on them. Several students were killed. This only further infuriated the Bengali population, which culminated in the cessation of East Pakistan from the territory of Pakistan. In 1971, a new country, Bangladesh, was born. Bangla became its official language.

In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as International Mother Tongue Day.

Can I forget Ekushey February
That’s draped in my brother’s blood?
Can I forget this February
That’s made of a thousand son-less mothers?
Can I forget the February
That’s coloured in the blood of my golden country?

~ Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury

(Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)

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