Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Carousel

I slid into the driver’s seat, let in the clutch, and we were off. I knew it was illegal, but it didn’t matter any more. All that mattered right now was where I was heading. What I was doing. Saving a life.

8 hours before…

“I’m so excited. I’ve never been to an amusement park with so many rides before. And they’re all so high. Wow.”

“Ok, I need you to keep quiet. For a while at least, I’m going to make a call. So don’t move.”
We both knew that I had just wasted my breath. As if keeping silent was possible for Libby. She had yakked all the way to the park.

“Ooh ooh! Look at this!” Libby cried.

God, when is she going to shut up?
Ignoring Libby, I continued to argue with my agent on the phone. She hadn’t managed to land me a role in months.


“Shhh!” I waved my hand at her without turning around, motioning her to stay shut.

“Ishitaaa!” Libby cried again.

“What is it?” I snapped, turning around. “I thought I told you to–“
There was no Libby. Only a large throng of people enveloping me.

“Libby?” Great. Just great. Now she got herself lost in the crowd. “LIBBY!”

My phone rang. “What?” I angrily snapped into the phone, seriously considering hanging up.

“Looking for Libby?” A sinister voice called from the other side.

“Who is this?” I said cautiously into the phone.

“Now, how does that matter? All that matters is that you want Libby back. Am I right?”

Who is this? Where is Libby?”

“Oh don’t worry, Libby is with me.” He snarled into the phone.

“Then give her back to me.”

“Of course I will. Why would I keep her from you? I just need something in return.”

“You want to trade her?”

“For a price, obviously.”

There was silence. I had just received a ransom call from a stranger who had my niece, and I didn’t know what to do.

“How much?”

“Ah. There’s my girl. It’s not much. Only five lakhs.”

My mouth went dry. I hadn’t had a job in months. Where was I going to get so much money?

“You’ll get it. Just don’t hurt her.”

There was a sinister laughter on the other side. “You just get the money, I’ll take care of the rest.”

“How do I know that she’s alive?” Immediately I heard Libby scream. “Libby!”

There was that laugh again. “Oh and just one more thing.”


“You have only eight hours. Or she’s dead.”

I closed my eyes and prayed to God, asking him to help me through this. Taking a deep breath, and pulling my ski mask on, I slunk through the huge backyard. Reaching the building, I broke the window with one swift kick. Jumping in, I loped to the large safe.

“Fifty five, thirty one, six, and ten, two to the left… ah!” I muttered; as I cracked open the safe. All those years of safe - cracking finally put to some good cause, instead of stealing. Everything should be a safe - cracker turned actor. Both skills were useful during a crisis. Like now.

The safe had opened completely, and in front of me, I saw bundles of cold, hard cash. It was everything I wanted, everything I needed. And more. Taking exactly five lakhs from the safe, I put it in the bag, shut the door, and fled.

I should be counting my blessings. There had been no alarm, no hidden cameras, no police, and best of all – no one had seen me. And everything contained in the posh abode screamed rich. It was as though God had willed this crime. How ironic.

Pulling off my ski mask, I jumped into the car, and immediately sped to the amusement park. The journey to the park felt like eternity. I just couldn’t get there fast enough, all the while hoping, praying Libby was safe, and unhurt.

Reaching the park, I tried to jump the turnstile, but as soon as I did, I was stopped a security guard.
“Ma’am, the park is closed. You can’t enter.”

“But I need to go. My niece is in there.”

“We will go look for–“I silenced him with one swift punch to his nose, and I heard the sickening sound of cartilage snap as he fell unconscious to the ground.

“Sorry.” I muttered, as if he could hear me, and ran to where I had lost her first.

“Libby!” I screamed desperately searching. “LIBBY!”

And then I saw her, taped to the carousel. Screaming her name, I ran to her, but I was stopped by a man. It was he.

“You came.”

“Here’s your money.” I said to him flinging the bag at him. He let me go, and I ran to her. Libby was bleeding, and her breath was shallow. I could feel tears roll down my cheeks, but I didn’t bother to brush them off. I gently removed the tape of Libby, as fast as I could. When I was done, I picked her up and ran to my car. The man was gone, I noticed.

I slid into the driver’s seat, let in the clutch, and we were off. I knew it was illegal, but it didn’t matter any more. All that mattered right now was where I was heading. What I was doing. Saving a life.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Love, Like, Hate, Adore.

Do you remember your first crush? The thrill? The madness? The excitement? Do you remember the anxiety?

I remember. I was 14 and so was he. He was a geek, (how I loved those glasses!) Had an overbite. ( Isn't that better than saying he had buck teeth a la Dharmendra in Ghazab?) He spoke with a slight South Indian accent. ( I found it super cool....would have used another word but my daughters read this blog.) In other words, I was totally mesmerized.

I remember talking about it with my friends. I remember writing down my name on a sheet of paper,  A-P-A-R-N-A and then writing down his below mine , V-I-, well never mind, my husband reads my blog too. I remember striking off the letters that were common to both our names and softly counting the ones that were left. Love, Like , Hate, Adore...ticking off the remaining letters one by one till I arrived at the conclusion. It was such an innocent, silly game.

Two of the books that I read last week dealt with first loves. In Alice Munro's collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; Johanna, the protagonist of the title story is a strong  yet vulnerable woman. The story centres around a deception two school girls play on her and the unusual turn her life takes due to this childish prank. Incidentally, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship Marriage is also the childish game the two preteen girls play to determine the fate of Johanna's love, something very similar to my own Love Like Hate, Adore. Interesting, isn't it?

The book has 9 stories in the collection. Alice Munro, a Canadian author, sets the stories in provincial towns of Canada. The stories are of ordinary women and their ordinary lives. Their dreams, love, fate and aspirations. Nettles, a story that I particularly liked, dealt with a girl's chance meeting with her first love after many years. The story is poignant, reminding us nothing remains the same forever and fate can be cruel at times. Some stories in the collection are simple, some are more complex. The author, the 2009 Man Booker International Prize winner for her lifetime work and a contender for the Nobel Prize, deftly unwraps the lives of women in small town Canada and moves you with her simple and powerful narration.

I do not know whether I should recommend the book. Authors like Chekhov, Saki, O Henry or Edgar Allen Poe, to name a few  short story writers, have impressed me more than Alice Munro. But you can try out her books, they are definitely worth a read.

The other book that I read was South Of The Border, West Of The Sun by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author, now settled in the USA. This 186 page novel, which you can finish in 2 days, is a somewhat touching tale of Hajime and Shimamoto who were classmates in an elementary school. They have similar taste in music ( the title of the book is taken from a song by Nat King Cole) and spend hours listening to songs in the girl's house.They are perhaps in love but are too young to know for sure.Years later, Hajime,  now a successful owner of a jazz bar, married with a pair of kids, meets Shimamoto again and they begin their clandestine love story.

This book is about wrong choices we often make in our lives. A flawed man, Hajime is not your typical hero. He is selfish and insecure and he ultimately does something that causes his almost perfect life to come crashing down around him. A lot of people would perhaps identify with his character. His lady-love Shimamoto on the contrary is a mystery woman. Till the end the reader has no idea about her true nature. All we get are some small glimpses into her life. Sometimes sappy, sometimes touching, the book left a lasting impression on me, though I admit I really hated Hajime at times. I loved Murakami's style. I now know why there are some people who swear by him and I would definitely love to read more of his work. His language is soft and rich and each word dazzles. He creates a strong imagery in your mind and you can see his characters right in front of you. Although, this perhaps is not the best work by Murakami, it still is a highly enjoyable read.

There was a delightful book that I picked up called In The Pond by Ha Jin, a Chinese writer, settled in, you guessed it, USA. The literature students would be familiar with the Picaresque novels of Europe in the 17th and 18th century. In The Pond reminded me of those novels.The protagonist, Shao Bin, works as a  pipe fitter in a fertilizer factory in a small village in Northern China. He is a senior worker and deserves an apartment in the Worker's Park Apartment Compound. But he gets passed over for the corrupt officials of the Communist Party and their cronies. The episodic novel tells the story of how Shao Bin, with the help of his art (he is a calligrapher) and a few journalist friends, takes on the commune's Party Secretary and fights for his rights. I loved the book. The book (only 178 pages) made me realize how similar the Indian Babus are and how the common Indians, waiting for a telephone connection, a house, a gas connection are harassed every day by these corrupt bureaucrats of our country. The Indians and the Chinese are not so different after all. The Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai slogan may actually mean more than we ever thought! Who else will know better than the officials who coin such terms! I highly recommend the book. It is funny and entertaining. You will not be disappointed.

The other book that I finished was The Bookseller Of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist. The story is an account of her stay with an Afghan family in Kabul. It is yet another tale of Afghanistan's tyrannical male dominated society and the brutal treatment of Afghani women. Apart from making me happy about the country of my birth, the book did not do any thing for me. It lacked the raw emotions of A Thousand Splendid Suns or the poignancy of The Kite Runner. This was nothing new and can be completely avoided. Those who have not read Khaled Hosseini's books on Afghanistan however should definitely pick up his books. I simply adore them.

I am thoroughly enjoying my journey of the world through books. The next few books on my list are

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I love her poetry and I did not know she also wrote novels. This apparently is the only novel she wrote.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, in fact I have already finished this one. It is a superb read.

In The Country Of Men by Hisham Matar.

I hope you will keep on recommending books for me to read. This is such a wonderful world, this world of books...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Phish, Phutball And Jamai Shashthi

My husband has been excommunicated from the Bengali community.

He does not have the typical Bengali traits and hates everything the community loves.

In the current football crazy Bengali world, he is showing utter apathy towards the game. He does not know how many teams are playing in the FIFA World Cup, he does not know the names of the players, he has no inkling as to who Ronaldo is and what colour jerseys the Brazilians (the eternal favourites of the Bongs) wear. His sins do not stop there. He hates fish, the Bengali's staple diet and has not touched the creature in the last 20 years. He hates Rabindrasangeet, every self respecting Bengali's pride and joy and he absolutely abhors eating rice before going to work. Naturally the community took major offence and finally kicked him out.

But my mother, the most loyal supporter my husband ever had, of course is not giving up. She uses every trick in the book to convert him back. And the most lethal weapon that she ruthlessly uses for this noble cause is the Jamai Shashthi.

For the uninitiated, Jamai Shashthi is celebrated all over Bengal on the sixth day of the Shukla Paksha of the month of Jyeshtha. (Translated into English, it means every year in June, around this time.) On this day, the mothers-in law prepare mouth watering delicacies and invite the jamais, or the sons in law to their homes. It goes without saying the food prepared by the moms-in-law happen to be the favourite of the jamais. Bengalis love to eat and on this day, tradition demands a grand feast. The more exotic the food, the better. Since my husband hates the traditional Bengali food, my mom actually serves him Chinese. Then there are the sweets. There are at least 5 varieties of them.  And yes, in between the sweets and the fries and the lunch and the dinner and elaborate tea, there are also huge plates full of fruits. After this, a lot of jamais simply collapse and are unable to attend office the next day.  Most bosses in Kolkata also suffer from the same condition and hence fully sympathize. The leaves are granted without any hesitation. They later on compare notes on whose mother in law prepared the best fare and who got the best gifts. (Did I tell you the jamais get gifts also? Shirts, trousers, wallets, books, watches...whatever they fancy) The daughters, though lament the fact that there is no special day assigned to them, do not really complain very loudly. Along with the jamais, they are also invited to their parents' homes for the feast.

Today happens to be Jamai Shashthi. My mother has been calling me for the last 2 weeks, nagging me to take my husband shopping to buy him whatever he wants. My husband asked if he could buy a BMW but my mom said she only had the money to buy him a cycle. So he had to be content with some clothing. She again called me last night, and then this morning to check if I had prepared his favourite stuff.  Not satisfied with the food cooked at home, she demanded I take him out for, you guessed it, Chinese.

This has been going on for the last 17 years. Since my mother and I stay in different cities, she sends me some money every year and coaxes me to take my husband out for dinner. Next day she calls me again to know what all we ate. As he loves sweets and fruits with passion, she expects me to fill up my refrigerator with his favourite stuff and feed him all that periodically.

Today Kolkata would be wearing a festive look. Over too much food, the jamais and the rest of the gang would be discussing the rising prices of the fish, Brazil's not so charming display of football this year and the latest spat between Mamata and Budhdhadev. There would be a smattering of jokes that only the Bengalis could come up with, there would be some Rabindrasangeet and of course there would be enough food to feed the entire country. My husband, who is going over to Delhi on work, would be missing out on all that fun. In the morning he surreptitiously tried to find out what all my cousins would be eating today at their sasural and seemed a bit unhappy for missing out on all those jamai shashthi sweets.

BTW, the other day I said, "Did you see Messi? Absolutely dazzling foot work!"
He replied, "Your masi came? When? How is she? And since when has she dazzled with her foot work? She can hardly walk...."
And then he said, " Your Kaka, Masi are all in South Africa to watch  football? How come I did not know?

So guys, do you think the Bengalis were wrong to throw him out of the community?

Friday, June 11, 2010

No Country Like Home

I have some memories of that year. Vague sketchy memories. I was too young, but I do remember the blackouts, the siren, the impassioned "Jai Bangla" cry. For those of us who were in Kolkata at that time, the war had entered our doorsteps. Millions had entered our country as refugees and the air was thick with tension.

The year was 1971. The Bangladeshis were fighting for liberation. Indira Gandhi was pledging full support. And India's Sam Manekshaw was masterminding strategies to win the war. Unlike the author of The Golden Age, children in India did not grow up listening to war stories. That perhaps is the reason why I found this particular book so fascinating and engrossing. The war was so near to me, yet I knew nothing of it.

The Golden Age by the Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2008. It is the story of a woman, Rehana Haque and her two children Sohail and Maya during the Bangladesh war. It is the story of a mother who held on to her two children with all her strength and never gave them up. It is the story of a country, battered and bruised but never giving up hope and it is the story of an obscene war, tearing apart ordinary lives and ordinary families. This was one stunning novel I hated to put down, 

To be honest, the novel's first half did not impress me so much. I found some discrepancies in the initial pages. A Hindu neighbour of Rehana, called Supriya Sengupta wears a heavy gold mangalsutra to show she is married.  Bengali women wear the mangalsutra as a fashion statement and not as a sign of marriage. We wear the 'loha' an iron bangle for that. We also wear the the traditional shankha-paula or the red and white bangles. Mangalsutra was never a part of bridal jewellery. It is only now, seeing women of other regions proudly flaunting this sacred thread, we have started wearing it. But we have no hesitation in taking this off when the saree or the outfit that we are wearing does not match with this accessory. To think that a woman in 1971 Bangladesh would wear one to indicate she was married seemed a bit unlikely to me. My mother's generation never wore the mangalsutra.

The story also mentions how Rehana took her children to see Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra in 1959. The reference of the movie is important here as this is one of the reasons Rehana lost custody of her children. I feel the author should have researched a bit more on this as the movie in question was released in 1963. A little bit imperfect history, but still the novel is powerfully written.

The other book I read in my quest to go round the world's libraries was Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. If the earlier book was gritty, this one was taut with emotions. This is the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black priest in a tiny village of South Africa who went to the big, bad city of Johannesburg to find his son. The book takes us through the black and white South Africa, the prosperity of the whites and the abject poverty of the blacks, the  Shanty Town of the blacks and the beautiful houses of the whites. It explores the racial injustice in a country where the whites controlled the blacks and completely destroyed their tribal culture.

The book is remarkable. This is what I would call a true classic. Each word, carefully chosen is full of beauty, wisdom and despair. You have to read it. There is no other way to describe it. Grab your copy today.

One book set in Bangladesh. Another in far away South Africa. One place where heavy monsoon rains mercilessly destroy the lives of the people but make the land lush, green and fertile. Another, where there are continuous droughts and the land is almost always parched. Two different cultures, two different races. And two authors deeply in love with their land, their despair and their hope of renewal for their own countries. 

So these were the books I read last week. I have already finished another book this week. But that is of course for my next post. Some of the books that I've shortlisted are as follows:

1. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro, a Canadian author. I fell in love with the name!
2. South Of The Border,West Of The Sun by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese. Again I loved the name and that is why I picked this up.
3. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist.
4. In The Pond by Ha Jin, a Chinese author, settled in USA.

I have been unable to decide on books from Australia and New Zealand. If you have a suggestion, then let me know. Till then I will be reading the ones listed above...  

Friday, June 4, 2010

The World And The Lover

What does the word 'World' mean to you? Earth? Human population? Civilization? Countries which have borders created by people? Geographical landmarks?

I have been thinking about it a lot ever since I read the book 'Around the world in 80 days' to my child. As most of you know, this classic book tells us how an English man Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passespartout travel around the world in 80 days to win a wager.

While reading the story, my daughter Ayushi, who is passionate about books, said,''Imagine how wonderful it would be to go to the different book stores of this world! Imagine how many books we could then read! I would call this adventure Around the world's libraries in 80 days''...

The child's imagination has set me up on a journey. I have decided to read as many books as possible from across the world in 80 days. There are many wonderful authors all across the globe. Some we have read, some we haven't. Many books are not available in Indian bookstores. But today, who really cares for such trivial difficulties? Books are available online. So I decided to read books set in various parts of our world. This would be my way of circumventing the world in 80 days. By doing this, I hope to learn more about the terrain, the culture, the people of this wonderful planet we call home. This would be my tribute to the world of literature.

My reading list as of now, is a bit sketchy. I have not decided still what all books to read. A lot depends upon the availability of a particular book. All I know is that I would like to read as many international authors as possible.

My 80 days started on June 1. I finished reading The Lover by Marguerite Duras. She was born in Saigon, a French colony which is now in Southern Vietnam. At the age of 70, she wrote L'amante, or The Lover which won her the Goncourt Prize (Le Prix Goncourt). She was an avant garde writer, and her writing style can be a bit ambiguous. But her words stay with you for a long time. And it's only later, once you have finished the book and put it down, her story starts to make sense.

The Lover is a gritty story of a poor French girl and her forbidden love affair with a rich Chinese man. When the story starts, the girl is fifteen and half. The man is twenty seven. Their troubled affair continues for one and a half years. Her manic-depressive mother encourages the girl to continue this affair for money. Her family feels this affair is a favour granted to the man as the girl is white and hence superior. Set in Saigon and Sa Dec during the French rule, this is a story with veiled references to racism, colonialism, poverty and lust.

The book is autobiographical. The girl in the story is the author herself. The novel's narration is in the first person but it often jumps to the third person. This can create a bit of ambiguity but as I said, slowly this starts to make sense.

I wish the book showcased more of the Indochina culture and way of life in the '30s. But it only talks about the love affair and very rarely discusses the cultural issues of those times.

Did I love the book? I can not say. I felt disturbed by it. I felt a little sad but I loved the ending, I thought it was a bit like a Bengali book I'd read many years ago called Na Hanyate (It does not die) by Maitreyi Devi. Those of you who have read that one can perhaps understand.

The book has only 120 pages, so I managed to finish this in 2 days.

The next one on my list is 'Cry, the beloved country' by Alan Paton. I have already finished about 100 pages of it. As this is a very famous book, a lot of you would have already read it. I hope to finish it in another 2 days.

I can not write book reviews, I do not think I am qualified to do so. Moreover, reading habits are rather personal and what appeals to me may not appeal to you. I only hope by reading about different people on the earth, I can understand our world a little better.

Those of you, who would like to join me in my quest can feel free to do so. You can either read the book that I am currently reading or pick up any other book that you would like. If you recommend it, I may include it in my reading list. I hope, after 80 days, I will be a little more literate. And don't forget to hold my hand, I will need a lot of support to finish my journey...