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Redemption Ride

I am in love with the Delhi Metro. For one, I get to read (or watch Suits on my phone. Aha). Mothers who (can make time to) read is a group with fewer members than the Micronesian Parliament. And I refuse to be thrown off it. The metro also provides the best alternative to moving my feet vigorously on the pedal without getting anywhere. So everyday I shove, race and celebrate the acquisition of a seat, at best, and a space to place stationery feet at the very least.

On most days my head is bowed in reverence to the words in my hands. But often the action around is engaging enough to invite a look or disturbing enough to dread. While I’m almost always in the “women’s coach”, sometimes an empty seat in the “general compartment” draws me in. In the former, I have seen and heard (not eavesdropped but God some people are loud) enough life histories to feed a potboiler. Women have fainted, howled, offered a seat to heavy-set women thinking they were pregnant, proclaimed their love for possibly dubious men and first-rate rum.

Being part of a “general”-anything is sure to be fraught with mediocrity and the thus-named metro compartments come with their own share of debased drama. Nose-in-book is a cure for many things but is a meek defense against crotch-in-face. Especially, if said crotch is riddled with a fidgety hand that you want to smack with aforementioned book. A hardbound copy of Proust would be a possible weapon for it. But with only the last two volumes of In Search of Lost Time remaining to be devoured, I’ve placed Paris aside for the moment and am on a most fascinating journey with Rebecca West through (erstwhile) Yugoslavia. However, my copy of her tome is a paperback and hence ill-placed to combat a denim-dressed crotch.

Despite curious distractions we continue our journey, Rebecca and I, in Herzegovina, Dalmatia, Kosovo and beyond, past garish Turkish remnants and ruined cathedrals, with history dancing forever beside us. In the haze of a garrulous metro ride, the sights, scents and sounds of her world meet mine, ensuring that 2014 Delhi can be 1931 Balkans and our lot in life can truly seek redemption through reading.

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Songs After Sundown

Songs After Sundown

A river cried God’s name in vain

As treasures spilled onto the streets from a tome

Forsaken love mocked the crimson earth

The night wore a shade of moonshine and verse.

 

Under green tints and shadow games

Wars had begun in the minds of men

They ate words, warm and uncut

While truant leaves churned fortunes in a cup.

 

Time flew in on a half-torn wing

Vanity and want shared a rummy drink

They danced among strewn letters of life

Polished by eyes behind velvet screens.

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Lifesaving Techniques: Now only a book-shelf away

The NamesakeIn Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake Ashok Ganguly survives a train accident because rescue workers spot him, thanks to the copy of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat that he is holding. That book, in effect, saves his life.
Books have often come to my rescue on journeys that were either too long or too tedious or at other times in unexpected ways.

If the trains taking me from Delhi to Gwalior and back, in the winter of 1999, had met with an accident, I may have survived or been caught dead with a copy of the only Danielle Steel novel I’ve read. I don’t remember the title. It was about a woman whose life kept getting worse as the novel progressed. I would’ve thrown the book out of the train window if it hadn’t been a borrowed copy. I just recall a black cover and the hope at the time that I had a newspaper to cover it. I certainly did not want to be caught dead with it.

Who Moved My Cheese?Reading in the car isn’t the best thing to do, but the long wait at traffic lights in Delhi often comes to the rescue. On a certain Sunday ten years ago, I discovered Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese in the dashboard of my friend’s car. We were on our way to the India Habitat Centre from NOIDA. I had finished the book in the car by the time we were on our way back. So had we been in an accident that day, my only hope of survival would have been a 50 odd page self-help book. Hardly exciting, considering I wasn’t helping my ‘self’ very much by reading about mice, who were supposed to represent something greater and more meaningful.

Bombay--London--New YorkAnother book I read over a week or so on my way to work and back was Amitava Kumar’s Bombay-London-New York. I can best describe it as a literary travelogue. It was an interesting read, though I always drew a blank from people if I told them what I was reading those days. But at least being caught dead with it wouldn’t have given me nightmares in my afterlife.

To the LighthouseBeginning of 2007 saw me reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse on the flight from Delhi to Dubai. Supposedly you can be jailed in Dubai for just about anything. Therefore, I decided to carry something non-controversial. An early 20th century British author, a dead one at that, didn’t look like a one way ticket to jail. And had there been hijackers on the plane, they would have had to confiscate my harmless copy of Woolf. I may have even been let off for giving them ideas about suicide, Virginia Woolf style.

Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in IranAnother lifesaver was Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad. Waiting at the Delhi airport for two hours was made easier by imagining I was in Tehran, very much a part of the ‘adventures’ of this ‘hyphenated american’ journalist. If not for this book, there would have been hell to pay. I would have definitely killed some person or the other if I had to wait for two hours in the heat with nothing to do!

As a result of all of the above, there is one superstition in my life that takes precedence over others:

Always carry a book with you.

You never know how it could end up saving your life.

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Street-Side Sunday Surprise

(This post originally appeared here)

When Edward Spenser wrote his epic poem The Faerie Queene celebrating the Tudor Dynasty and Elizabeth I, little could he have imagined that more than 400 years later the monetary worth of his words would be tested by a weighing contraption installed in Delhi.

At 0.82 kgs, Spenser’s allegorical masterpiece exchanges hands at Rs. 180. Meanwhile, a student laments at not having located Homer in the ‘Classic Novel at Rs. 200’ pile while another is contemplating picking up Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy.

Jostling amidst book hungry crowds at the weekly market in Daryaganj is a treat every Delhi dweller and city traveller must partake in. Stretching for nearly two kilometres on Asaf Ali Road is a pavement full of the most eclectic collection of books you’d find anywhere. From a 1942 Yugoslavian edition ofTwenty Thousand Leagues to Monet’s letters, Premchand’s Complete Works or a tattered Jackie Collins paperback, this Sunday book market is certainly for everyone. Whether your vocation or interests lie in art, architecture, design, food, medicine or comics, you’ll find that strolling through the narrow pathway lining the book-display is a wonderful way to start your Sunday.

Prices differ based on discounts over printed rates, fixed weight-based calculations or simply grab-as-you-go short change (Rs. 10 for second hand P.D. James for instance). And all of these remain at the discretion of the shopkeeper. Even if you’ve spotted a nearly new hardbound copy of Victor Hugo’s Complete Works, it is unwise to display the gleam in your eyes. Bargaining would become that much more difficult. Instead it’s advisable to leisurely pick up the desired copy, turn it around, flip through its pages (even as your heart continues to flutter ever so much) and then nonchalantly ask for the best price. It may also do well to carry a bag along to fill all your goodies in. Books within reach that are not bought for seemingly avoidable reasons are what bibliophile nightmares are made of.

Having begun in the 1960s, the Daryaganj Book Bazaar has lived through decades of changes the city has witnessed. The book market has retained its charm among students, academics, collectors and travellers ever eager to dive hand-first in search of a treasure. There are those who flock here as a Sunday morning ritual and others who’re crossing it off the list of things to do in the city. Either way, the activity promises a Sunday morning well spent. And one that is likely to end in unparalleled joy at having found a gem you weren’t even searching for.

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Write On

I have been away for a week. There would be punishments for this kind of thing but I’m the boss and not a keen follower of the masochism movement. Instead I can only make a note to self: Live and let write.

No revolutionary events to report but mundane thoughts on things continue. Like happiness worth 50 bucks by way of two (second hand) books I bought for 25 each. Cheap thrills aren’t easy. In the 10 minutes before the 10.30 pm movie show, you must scan piles of mindless junk to get to anything worth more than 25. And when you do, the joy lasts for days on end. If you’re turning your nose up at “second hand” stuff and think you’re cat’s whiskers, well then you better do a good job chasing the tiny rat’s ass I care about your opinion on that one. The great thing about second hand books is that there’s always a story (or more) than what exists between the covers. If you find names or personal notes, you’re lucky. Otherwise you can invent your own story and imagine it played out as the finest drama there ever was.

Talking about drama, there’s enough everyday to belittle Television soap operas. Having your zombie moment at work in the form of picking up the phone and dialing the number on the keyboard instead of the phone pad. Spilling cheese from an eat-on-the-go sandwich all over your clothes on your way to work. Paying 50 bucks and getting lost on your way to a place that’s at a five minute walking distance. Or days going downhill suddenly picking up towards the end and making you a star (at least for a while).

As star vices go, I have those of the restless variety. There is a need to always be doing something that amounts to more than can be summed up in a word (or sentence). There’s the urge to eat the forbidden sweet (did I say “forbidden”? Nonsense. In my world there are no forbidden sweet vices). There’s the desire to watch back-to-back episodes of the favourite show late into the night, with knowledge of how resulting lack of sleep will affect next day at work. There’s the conversation with the almighty where wishes shift priorities at the speed of light/sound, whichever you prefer.

And so the days pass, one bead on a string followed by another.

Jaded, Coloured, Crooked, Pearl white.

Good, Bad or Ugly. But none like the other.

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The (L)imitless Light of Life

The light shines into the act of life for only the briefest moment-perhaps only a matter of seconds. Once it is gone and one has failed to grasp its offered revelation, there is no second chance. One may have to live the rest of one’s life in hopeless depths of loneliness and remorse. In that twilight world, one can no longer look forward to anything. All that such a person holds in his hands is the withered corpse of what should have been.

– ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’ by Haruki Murakami

As much as I love this book, I can’t help but disagree with this passage, even if it is a poignant reminder of fleeting moments and squandered opportunities.

I think the light that shines into our lives is limited only by our notions of what is possible. Yesterday, a gentleman shared the story of a woman who was diagnosed with a tumor of the spine which was going to render her paralysed from the waist down. What may have left most people shattered made this woman react with enough strength to face her reality head-on. Doctors had informed her of the gradual onset of paralysis and she spent the intervening time preparing for her life ahead in practical terms. After a few years her young daughter was also diagnosed as having the same condition.  And they found a way to lead fulfilled lives on their terms.

There are countless stories of people not being limited by their circumstances. And yet, more often than not happiness is equated with requiring a certain set of attributes that fit into earmarked boxes. These include models of success, physical beauty, mental acumen, all defined by the external world.

If only we could save ourselves a whole lot of heartburn and be reminded each day of one simple fact: Happiness is simply a celebration of the limitless light we hold inside.

Easier said than done, but worth fighting with ourselves for, no?

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The Bare-All (B)ucket List. Or simply, “My Birthday is coming, pick a cause to sponsor”. I suggest #2 or #7

These are a few of my favourite things, some of the things I want to do, at some point, before I croak.

1. Read all seven volumes of ‘In Search of Lost Time’.

I’m on the last 100 pages of Volume 3. This one is a slow train, but there’s no rush. It is oh so delightful.

2. Watch Eddie Vedder in concert.

I’ve screamed myself hoarse at The Scorpions, Iron Maiden and Metallica. Eddie Baby Call me soon.

3. Learn to swim.

Okay, in my defence, scuba diving in Havelock has been accomplished. And who cares about the neighbourhood pool. But Robert De Niro swam to safety in Deer Hunter and I feel like I should know how to do it too. Just in case.

4. Finish a Marathon.

Honestly, this one is just so that I can shut the husband and his like. I’d love to throw that in his face the next time he launches the You’re-not-working-out attack. Toddler care and driving in Delhi are legitimate workouts. And fitting into college jeans post baby-pop calls for a celebration. But I think the marathon survivor tee ought to do it.

5. Roll-on-the-floor Laughing.

I have chuckled, grinned, laughed out loud yes, but a floor-roll? Reminds me of a play I was in at kindergarten. It was based on a fairy tale in a Hindi book, the story of a princess who never smiles. Her father, the King, calls people from far and wide to make her smile. Nothing works, not even a monkey dance. And then a man walks in with a pillow disguised as a big belly. The ‘belly’ falls off and the princess laughs and laughs and laughs. I played the princess and I did laugh. So come on world, drop the metaphorical belly so I can show you how I roll.

6. Write a Book.

There are demons in my head, on the road and in the grocery store. They deserve to be heard. And if it can be Wodehouse-funny I’ll kiss my knees. Because they’re saucy and that’s where the books rest on curl-up nights.

7. Visit a new place every year.

This stuff is real. It has worked in the past. May there always be enough cash and whimsy wanderlust to support this cause. Amen.

8. Shake at least some manic depressives out of their sad skins.

Not with fake belly acts but something that lasts; longer than a hookah high, shorter than a lifetime will do.

9. Sky Dive/Bike Ride Tutorials.

Not a stickler for these but if they come my way, hell why not!

10. Kick a Bucket.

Not the metaphorical death sentence. I mean place a bright, big bucket in a field and kick the damn thing. Someone has to do it.

 

P.S.: See the green badge on the right? I’m participating in the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. Read all about it here: http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/

We’re on Day 2 today with the letter ‘B’ for BucketList. Stay tuned, in April and beyond.

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An (A)fternoon of Nasal Orgy

Don’t get me wrong. This is not going to be an exposition on an ancient art of instant gratification. I am instead allowing you to peek into the world of a crazed bibliophile.

This ‘attachment’ that I speak of can sometimes transcend the mere appreciation of words and find the subject allowing her sense of smell to explore what lies not between the lines but between the pages.

This is what happened on a muggy afternoon…

The discoveries made were startling, sometimes unexplained and only rarely predictable.

~

Don’t you think its only fair that Pearl S. Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ smelt of rice.

Or that Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Istanbul’ reminded the smeller (if there ever was one) of a land far away, never visited.

But would anyone think that ‘Dog Years’, that chaotically poetic Gunter Grass work that tells of a world gone mad, could smell pleasant.

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Or that the two part autobiography of a dictator (Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’) could remind one’s nose of fresh flowers on a spring morning.

(and the irony of it all that I should speak of Grass and Hitler almost in the same breath).

What do you think Franz Kafka’s ‘Diaries’ smelt of? Existential angst? Perhaps that is the best and the only way to describe it.

Diaries of Franz Kafka

And how about Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’? Well, it smelt sweet, something the author could not have imagined, much less intended.

And what happened when one tried to capture the scent of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’?

Nothing. No fresh flowers, wet earth or English summer. In fact, there was no scent at all!

It was most unusual that the smell from the pages of Hermann Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’ took one back to the library in a convent not visited for over fifteen years.

Equally interesting was the discovery that Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’, the unabashed ode to ‘individualism’, actually smells of ashes.

Finally (deciding to leave many others in the wake), it was time to discover what senses Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ would awaken. It most certainly did not remind one of the scent of bitter almonds. Instead, it was an indescribable smell.

One could not relate it to anything…only fitting, for perhaps it smelt of that indescribable feeling…love.

That an afternoon could have been spent thus is proof of the fact that attachment of this nature is only half explored through the eyes and the mind.

There are countless associations waiting to be made by calling into play other senses…

…but it is only possible if you’re inclined enough to disregard modes of ‘normal’ behaviour.

P.S.: In case you haven’t noticed, I’m participating in the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. Read all about it here: http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/

We begin today with the letter ‘A’ for Afternoon. Stay tuned, in April and beyond.

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Scribbler On The Book

I often wonder if it is quite alright to leave my mark on the pages of books written by others. Would it be so terrible to dot the margins of a beloved book with something that says I was there once? And not for the benefit of others, but just because a passage, a word, a thought moved me enough to want to carry it around forever. People have been known to copy interesting passages in their diaries. But extracting the words from where they belong may alter the true meaning and intent of the man/woman who put them at a particular spot for a reason.

A friend once said one could only get away with being a scribbler if one were Maxim Gorky (a big scribbler I’m told). I may not fit the bill according to those standards, but it is an exciting prospect indeed to imagine going back to a book devoured ages ago, only to find I left a little of myself in it.

For reading is hardly about the book or the author alone. The very act of picking out a book to read (from several others) marks the first active choice made as a reader. While the author writes with his/her belief systems and prejudices intact, you will react with your set of the same in place.

Having made that first choice of picking out a book, is it not just an extension of that choice to scribble away in it (only if it’s a personal copy of course) if your heart so desires (even if your head may scream the word ‘sacrilege’ often enough)?

Who says scribbling is only meant for textbooks. When there are other (better) books out there that you love enough to agree to spend your life with, scribbling on them must only be considered an extension of your love.

So perhaps it is quite alright to dot the margins of Marquez, Tolstoy, Proust, Woolf, Wodehouse and others. And perhaps a day will come when a closet-scribbler will be able to stand in front of a crowd and elicit thunderous applause when she states with pride: “I am a scribbler on the book” (among other things).

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(Don’t) Listen to Me

Call me old-fashioned but I can’t get my ear around audio books. Truth is, until yesterday I had never really given it a chance. When I was forced to explain what I thought about it (“I just don’t like it” wasn’t enough), I thought to leave prejudice aside and give an honest listen. For all these quick experiments I am always grateful to the people at Project Gutenberg, they do make it look easy. So I picked out Jane Austen’s Emma to lose my written-word religion. Curiosity only took me past the first two minutes and my thoughts about audio books remained the same before and after the experiment.

Listening, like reading, requires active participation of your senses if you wish to assimilate the true beauty of the work. While music enhances mundane activities like driving by providing background joy, I do not expect the same to happen with background recitation of my favorite books. The most significant difference between the two is that I’m listening to Long Nights in my car because Eddie Vedder recorded his masterful voice for my listening pleasure. Marcel Proust, on the other hand, spent hours writing In Search of Lost Time so that I could spend hours (realistically half a year and counting) reading him off the translated pages. Even if Proust had recorded a reading of his work, the audio version of his books would have been a wonderful accompaniment to my copies of the seven volumes and not my sole experience of them.

Lovers of audio books vouch for the simplicity of improving their weekly average and being able to complete more books than they could imagine doing by taking the time to read. “I listen while I cook”, a lady remarked while marveling at the ease of finishing nearly two books a week. Is it just me or are speed statistics the worst way to go about devouring books. Many books I’ve loved are imprinted in my mind not only because of the worlds they held but also my memory of life around the time I was reading them. How can I ever forget that after attempting to read War and Peace for years, I finally read it from beginning to end over three months when my little girl had begun to kick around in my belly? Then she popped out two days too soon on Tolstoy’s birthday. Oh the miracles of birth and a few good words.

And yet, maybe, just maybe, I will allow certain types of writing to be read to me. I could permit Bill Bryson to accompany my daily drive with The Lost Continent, his Travels in Small Town America.  I expect his voice will carry along all the humor his written words do. I also hear that Stephen Fry’s reading of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a hoot. And who knows what wondrous things that can happen while Colin Firth whispers The End of the Affair in my ear.

Listening to a book may never replace the joy of finding the time and a quiet corner (or a crowded train) to pore over its pages (I have barely made peace with e-books). Audio pleasures will likely be restricted to the music people make, unless I find an audio-book gem that draws me in from the time I push play.

Do come away recitals. Surprise me.