Friday, February 25, 2005

Short Takes Part II

Amazingly, I forgot to mention the two most remarkable events of last week. The first is that we cleared up a room that has been in a state of chaos for eight years and the other was that my friend Sunita Paul became a grandmother for the first time, on Friday the 18th.

How odd it is that a date which towers over one when it is still in the future slips under and behind one like a gentle ripple as it enters the past ...

The clearing up of the living room was such a momentous activity, I can't quite take it in. Pause to rewind the facts: we moved into this house (actually the ground floor of a two-storey apartment -- in the US it would be called the "first floor" -- with us downstairs and our friends from whom we rent the house, on the first floor above us) in February 1998 -- if I'm not mistaken, it was on the 28th, the last day of the month. The circumstance of our moving was fraught with many tensions -- too many for me to even begin to describe in a blog -- but the most relevant of these is that three people were moving from a much larger apartment to a significantly smaller one, and also that the much larger apartment had been occupied continuously for about 20 years, and was therefore home to a vast collection of possessions, including about 3000 books. Packing the huge mass of all these myriad items, labelling cartons, cleaning up the spaces we were leaving behind, managing the move while the upper floor of the current house was still under construction -- all of this had taken several months -- and the move itself was like watching a building implode slowly upon itself, except in this case it wasn't the external building but its interior, its decor, its space, its lifestyle.

Since the house we are in currently couldn't contain us in the same manner as the old place, we had packed our stuff into cartons. Once we were here, the urgencies of setting up our lives here overtook us at once -- again, there are too many stories here for me to be able to encapsulate them -- so that we had just enough time to arrange the cartons -- around 400 all told, each one roughly 18"x12"x12" in size -- wherever we could park them, then fit the furniture in too, then squeeze ourselves in and tell ourselves how lucky we were to have a pleasant roof over our heads, and a small garden in front and a steady water-supply. It's a nice colony to live in, being unusually quiet by Delhi standards, with great security, because it's small and gated. There's a pocket-sized park across from our front gate and medium-tall trees everywhere.

But ... we were cramped when we moved and we've remained cramped ever since. The most obvious physical sign of this crampedness is that every room in the house -- two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and a smaller space which may have originally been planned as a TV room but for us became the only available living room, plus two bathrooms and a wash-room -- has had to double as a storage room. Aside from the kitchen and bathrooms, those cartons have remained firmly in place, having become a geological feature, part of the bedrock of the house. Even so, there wasn't place for all the cartons AND normal living spaces, so the biggest of the rooms, the original living room, was given over to being a storage space right from the start and has remained that ever since.

Whatever didn't fit anywhere else found its final resting place in the living room. From the very outset, the room resembled a warehouse, filled from floor to ceiling with all manner of merchandise, in cartons, plus the bits and pieces of surplus furniture. It was orderly at the outset but gradually began to deteriorate into a general dump-site. It was of course impossible to clean and so ... it wasn't. Delhi being an area of continuous dust-fall, that room became a type of interior desert, where the fine black dust, distilled out of our diesel-fume-enriched atmosphere, built up in weird dunes on the walls; it became a wild-life preserve for generations of spiders, a sanctuary for dust-mice and every other manner of neglect-related life-form. There were empty printer-cartons, filled printer-cartons, shoe-boxes, an old tyre, stacks of ply-wood, old shoes, dying towels, dead cloth rags, dusty prayer-flags, porcupine quills, used brownpaper envelopes, a set of darts, several suitcases ... you get the idea. Junk supreme, junk-to-the-power-ten, junk invincible.

E kept his hardware tools in well-built and well-ordered closets and the cartons ensured that whatever was inside them was dry and dust-free (because we'd lined them with plastic and sealed them with tape) but accessing anything became an ordeal that rarely seemed worth the effort.

SO! Given this background, the fact that we actually cleared up this area of unspeakable unusability last week -- for the very first time since we moved in here is ... well, it feels like sun breaking from the clouds after eight years of continuous storm. Of course, when I say "cleared up" I certainly do NOT mean that it would win any IKEA prizes, not even in the "warehouse" category, coz it's still full of cartons and it includes as part of its essential decor a foot-operated pump, motorcycle spare-parts, the indomitable porcupine quills, bits of lumber and The Tyre. But it's actually a recognizable room now: it has a bed, a framed picture on one of its walls, we can walk into the space and look around it and even breathe now and then. Light comes in through the glass doors along its front wall, crosses the room and enters the rest of the house. This has not happened since we moved in. It's like a benediction. I've re-discovered things that I'd forgotten I owned -- bamboo-handled paintbrushes, six bottles of black ink, a roll of pristine tracing paper. I've thrown away stacks of cassettes that had succumbed to age. I've thrown away old clothes, and stowed away new ones, reminded myself that I have a large number of old shoes and smiled fondly at my hoard of antique bow-pens.

In short, life and renewal have overtaken a tiny sector of the Universe.

This statement brings me to Sunita's grand-child. I have never been a baby-friendly person, and no-one who knows me expects me to be involved in child-rearing activities, but still, I was very glad for my friend, and for her daughter Sonal. The child is a boy -- Neel -- and two days ago, I visited Sunita at her press, where, over coffee, she gave me a beautifully precise description of what the newborn is like: his dignity, his miniature expressions, his good behavior, his already-appreciable habits and personality. Some time next week, I will pay a visit, fortified with advance knowledge of what it will be like, already knowing that I will enjoy meeting up with Sonal again, glad that she is recovering well. There are a number of babies in my life just now -- I get daily up-dates from Madras, when I call my mother in the evenings, about my niece's daughter, Maitreyi. And a Tiger Haven Society member is currently very happy on account of her grandson's presence in her house, his first visit.

It amazes me that newborns have personalities so absolutely, from the very first breath they draw -- and no doubt, for their mothers, even before birth: I know my niece was constantly aware of her unborn's needs, impatience, restlessness and perhaps a lot else that can't really be articulated. I am extremely grateful that I never had children. I could never have managed the extreme demands that would have been made on my very meagre emotional resources. Even at a distance, watching young parents with their children, I feel a kind of terror overwhelm me, at the enormity of it all. A whole new life ... eek.

It takes a lot of courage, huh? Thank god I don't have any.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Short Takes

So many things have been happening in the past week, I can barely believe it's been six days since I last posted. It feels more like a month. Mostly it's that the three previous weeks of frantic activity are gradually paying off in the form of Work Done rather than Work In Screaming Loony Progress.

Most satisfying perhaps has been the re-printing of my "Tree of Life" poster -- I named it "LET IT GROW" when I first printed it but everyone who saw it referred to it as "your Tree of Life poster" so who am I to resist? -- at my friend Sunita Paul's press. My main purpose was to print a special commemmorative edition for the Tiger Haven Society (about which more in a moment) but it's also been part of a scheme that Sunita and I have been cooking up for a while, to print cards and posters based on my designs. Since I have never managed to be commercially viable, yet have always WANTED to sell my designs in the form of posters/cards, having them printed by Sunita on her off-set machines was a dream that I hardly dared hope might come true. With the new Tree of Life it HAS -- and I will say without a blush that it looks gorgeous. It's smaller than the original edition, but printed in black against a soft metallic gold backdrop. The graphic (for those who don't have a clue about what I'm referring to -- most of my friends have seen this poster since the early nineties) is the silhouette of a vast tree, roughly raintree shaped, filled with animals, birds and fishes. The gold-background version is available only at a special price as a donation to the THS but non-gold versions are also available. I've not decided at what price, possibly Rs 150.

Aside from the poster, what also got done was Billy Arjan Singh's book "A Tiger's Story" -- he was very keen that it should be reprinted but the original publisher, HarperCollins, had pulped 106 copies of their edition (without prior notice to the author) and were disinterested in reprinting it. So I went to Anuj Bahri of Bahri's bookshop in Khan Market and asked if he'd like to take on the book -- he's been publishing a number of titles under his imprint TARA (also INDIA RESEARCH PRESS) -- and that seemed especially auspicious, because Tara was the name of Billy's beloved tigress, the subject of his book. Anuj most graciously agreed to take on the book -- and we were off, chasing after very tight deadlines. Anyone who knows about the book trade knows how many gaffes can occur between the start of a book-project and the end of it, many weeks/months later -- but this one absolutely raced to the finish-line: in literally about three weeks, we managed to get all the material together and it is right now under printing. According to Anuj, I should have the book with me this weekend. He is most fortunate in his production manager, a very quiet, but well-organized person called Ravi Kumar.

Okay -- the Tiger Haven Society: as may be recalled, I spent Christmas at the home of Billy Arjan Singh, near Dudhwa National Park, in northern UP. He is a wonderful and powerfully inspiring personality so it's no surprise that I was easily caught up in the desire to help him in his quest -- which is of course to save whatever we can of India's dwindling wild-life. The THS is an association built out of his family and friends, which aims to support and to continue his life-work after he is gone. It is as yet only a very modest association and at the end of next week (on the 4th of March) they are hosting a small fund-raiser, based around Billy's recently received 2004 Paul Getty Award. Invitees have been approached from amongst friends who are willing to be dined and entertained (with a short film and a chance to meet Billy) while being encouraged to donate a minimum of Rs 2000 at the event -- for which price they will receive one copy of my poster and will be able to buy Billy's book at a special (low) price. If this event goes off reasonably well, they plan larger versions of the same.

If this wasn't enough, I was also working overtime on getting pages ready for the May pub-date of the next Suki book -- this time based on DOUBLE TALK, my first strip, that appeared in Bombay's Sunday Observer in the mid-80s, as well as the cover for my children's short story collection (three stories, too short to be referred to as a trilogy!) called URMILA THE ULTIMATE, for Puffin. I don't know why it all came together during that one week, but it did. And FINALLY -- on Monday of the week (i.e., the 14th) I discovered that a vague deadline that had started up the previous week, had suddenly become a howling tornado -- I HAD to write a 200-word "letter" to the potential young readers of "MOUSE ATTACK" because there was a chance that the book would be part of a Virgin Trains Easter special promotion -- in which case 12,500 copies would be printed and distributed over the Easter weekend in late March-- by mid-week, i.e., Wednesday. It didn't mean much in the way of revenue to me, but it would certainly be amazing exposure -- 12,500! That's more books than I've ever published, I think, all my eight titles combined -- and I simply couldn't afford not to at least try to make the date.

Phew. So ... we succeeded -- I, my agent Kate and editorial assistant Hannah (both in London) -- with no help, initially, from Hotmail, which caused an unholy delay, initially -- ah,ah,ah, -- but it's over now and the book will be used.

Is this enough? But no, there's one more event! In mid-last week -- on the 15th, I discovered to my major shock, that a book-launch at which I'd been invited as the First Recipient -- was a month earlier than I THOUGHT it was -- in February, rather than March. OUCH! I would have missed it altogether, had not someone called me the day before to tell me they hoped to meet me at the venue (the IIC). I am terribly uncomfortable at public viewings, so had NOT been looking forward to this event -- had been fretting about it ever since I'd been requested to attend -- but it all went off rather sweetly. The book is about the work of cartoonist MAYA KAMATH who died four years ago -- it's very unfortunate, as she was a gifted cartoonist -- and that rarest of rare beings, a woman POLITICAL cartoonist, whose work appeared on the front page of the Asian Age -- and when her daughter Deepa got in touch with me to ask if I would agree to write a few words about her mother's work for the book, I was very willing to do so. That's what made it impossible for me to refuse to be present at the launch. Anyway, like I said, it all went off without a hitch, the book is interesting and well-produced and extremely well-priced -- Rs 750 -- called THE WORLD OF MAYA.

And now I must stop! I'll have to return to correct proofing errors at some later date ... they're there, I'm sure of it ... but not NOW, Kato, not NOW. (PS: I have now up-dated and corrected a few of the errors in this post, but I love making references to Kato, so I'm leaving that in. I suppose there ARE still a few people left alive who know what I'm referring to?)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

St Gloomidor's Day

Well, this is what happens if you blog too much -- you begin to write bad poetry. I wrote the first of the two verses below at Zigzackly's blog some days back (guess the date?) and then noticed that a fountain of silly rhymes was starting to gush upwards and out. Not only that, but it occurred to me that in order to correct the imbalance in the Universe caused by an excess of WarmGushy Force following St Valentine's Day, we needed a day to commemorate the DarkIcky Force. According to the Britannica, St Valentine was most likely a figment of someone's wishful thinking, so it seems to me perfectly reasonable to create his logical opposite, St Gloomidor.

He was a shabby, hungry monk who wandered the middle ages groaning deeply, bathing not at all and worrying about everything. His symbol is a dark cloud and his trademark audio-signal is thunder. Though he is associated with all things mournful and shaded, the fact that he promotes rainful suggests that even he has his beneficial effect (rain, i.e., in case you were wondering.)

He is the patron saint of all depressives, singletons, hermits, self-abusers and others of that dismal but vast battalion of humans who do NOT celebrate Valentine's Day and, what's more, NEVER HAVE.

We need to find an appropriate date for him. If no-one suggests one, I WILL ... but I'll give yez the chance to try before proposing, seconding and passing by unanimous vote the one of my choice.

Meanwhile, here are the two worthless verses:

Won't you be my Valentine?
You'll be mine and I'll be thine?

I will bind thee tight in twine,
Whip thee with a cat o' nine,
While in boots and crinoline,
Thee will on these nails recline,
Drinking tender lilac wine --
Ah! My lovely concubine!


Hit me soundly, hit me quick,
Hit me with a pointed stick,
And if I cry, "You went too far!"
Hit me with a choco bar.

Okay, and just to prove that I have flashes of normalcy, I'd like to share this week's Sun Bird Moment. It occurred yesterday morning. I was looking out through the glass door which leads from the dining room to the garden, when a tiny, jewelled sunbird, seeing only the reflection of the garden in the glass, flew towards the door. There he fluttered, shimmering, just a foot in front of my face, while I stood invisible behind the glass. We don't have hummingbirds here in the Old World, but sunbirds are excellent substitutes. They don't hover in the dramatic style of hummingbirds, but they DO resist gravity for brief periods, rowing the air frantically with their miniature wings before darting away and out of sight.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Megapolis Horrorshow

When my friend Anvar Alikhan recommended Suketu Mehta's non-fiction masterpiece about Bombay, MAXIMUM CITY, by likening it to "... a cocktail of champagne and sewer water" my instant reaction was that I would NEVER want to taste such a drink, so why would I read the book? Several further recommendations followed but I continued to avoid the book. Recently, however, I took a sip from it in the form of an extract published in Nilanjana Roy's highly readable A MATTER OF TASTE, an anthology of writing about food -- and had to agree the writing was riveting.

So I'm currently half-way, having just emerged from the section called "Black Collar Workers". While trudging alongside Mehta as he trawls through the blood and filth of Bombay's underworld, the irreverent thought that kept recurring was Anvar's analogy about champagne and sewer water. I've been asking myself what proportion of champagne is required to make even a single teaspoonful of sewer water acceptable? One hundred litres? One thousand litres? I don't think I would knowingly drink such a brew no matter how small the proportion of s.w. to bubbly -- despite recognizing that, whenever we're drinking from glasses we haven't personally washed, we really cannot know what percent of the sewer has slimed its way in and clung to the inner surface of that glass.

So -- yes -- reading Mehta's book is an ordeal. He writes with the kind of cool detachment which makes me dislike him -- it's unfair, it's a shooting-the-messenger situation, and yet I feel the urge to pin my revulsion and distaste for what I'm reading on SOMEONE and he's the handiest person available. There's no point sparing any feelings at all for the thugs who form the protagonists in the section on Bombay's pus-encrusted crime-scene. The police are represented in exactly the same light -- there's very little to choose from, the criminals and the crime-fighters appear to belong to exactly the same breed of hyena-clones.

I have asked myself whether anyone would miss these peopel if they were all to be exterminated by one giant cleansing purge -- an earthquake, a volcano, a fire -- and I believe the answer is "no". According to Mehta's record, the villains belong to all and every communal and religious background (though only a sprinkling of Christians and no Parsis/Iranis appear to be represented). So far the only character who has kept himself above the gore is a police officer from an affluent family. And even he is immune only to corruption -- he affords his integrity by belonging to a more secure class of society -- but not violence.

It's simply not possible (for me) to care if such people think or feel pain or have orgasms or eat night-soil for dessert. Is this because they really are like that or because the author has not been able to show me anything but this dehumanized view? Are the Italian mafia exactly the same and is it only because their authors dress them up for us in an aura of dark glamour that they appear to be a better class of villain? Or are they really less repulsive than their counterparts in the slime-pits of Bombay? I don't suppose I will ever know.

Mehta's prose is strong on relevant detail and taut in the way of a well-edited documentary film. I have been trying to decide why I feel such an antipathy towards him. Is it only transferrence? Or is there something concrete to dislike? I have half the book left to go and so I don't know yet. There is a peculiar detachment that I find unnerving, for instance. We are encouraged to accept that without his detachment he wouldn't have succeeded in penetrating deep into Gangland. But it's distracting. I've been asking myself what I've learnt from reading about the underworld and I've realized now that it doesn't amount to much. I know now what I knew before: that vast numbers of people live under the oppression of ghouls in human form who operate in gangs; and the interrelationships between the gangs is complex -- and that's all.

We already know that poverty and deprivation can strip away a person's faculties to the point where they're just bundles of raw appetite. There's no explanation for how the ghouls are created, or why we as people or as a nation are susceptible to their creation and most of all, why we remain so strangely unmoved by the knowledge of these horrors that seethe and bubble around us. Perhaps what I'm responding to is the frustration of seeing that someone has exposed an atrocious view of reality and yet it's framed within that ghastly apathy, that complicity of inaction that makes the telling of these tales all but futile.

It's like being shown that we're surrounded by Auschwitzes and Buchenwalds but -- ooohhh dear! Can't do anything about it, can we? No, of course not -- because the easy polarities of WWII are behind us and it's become impossible to even the name the causes of our disease or to find cures for it or to request help to save us from ourselves. Nope. Our approach is to still our minds and hearts, sip our noxious sewer-champagne cocktail and tell ourselves it is only birdie-num-num after all.

Still and all ... I'm going to finish reading the book.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

(W)rites of Passage

A thought occurred to me today (well, some time ago, actually, but today's when the the thought returned to the front of my mind) -- if, prior to the time when I will shuffle off this mortal coil, I am still a blogger, I fondly hope that someone who hears about the event will leave a "comment" to that effect at my blog.

I mean ... haven't we all wondered? About what's happened to a friend from whom we haven't had e-mail for some time? It's true that the news often filters around the globe through one channel or another, but those channels aren't always reliable. And I'd certainly like to think that blogs can function as news-posts at the time of a final exit. I can recall one early blog-like site at which one of the regular members suddenly ceased to post -- and a day later we all knew through the kind concern of the only person who had been in RL contact with old "Unicorn" (I think that was her handle) that she had moved on to a Higher Server. I was glad to know.

While we are on the subject of final journeys -- a subject that will, no doubt, only become increasingly fascinating as the months/years wear on -- I often ask myself how to ensure that the physical elements of my body are returned to nature with a minimum of fuss. It really annoys me to think that I will not be around to manage the situation for myself. I would, for instance, absolutely abhor to be disposed of with any traditional rites -- I say this even though I don't believe in an afterlife and therefore realize that "I" won't be around to either like or dislike what happens to "me". But I've noticed that, especially in India, in the lack of any alternative rites/ceremonies, a body is treated by its relatives in whatever way the relatives deem fit, which usually means, within the tradition to which the relatives (rather than the deceased) belongs.

Not that I've attended so many funerals of eccentric free-thinkers or anything. And certainly, at least two of the only handful of death-rites I've attended, were supremely (and attractively) fuss-free -- but that was through the agency of the surviving family members, who knew and respected the rights of the deceased. In my case -- since I have no children and don't expect or want to be cared for by my siblings' children -- I would expect to die alone and to have made some sort of provision for my mortal remains, assuming it happened in some anticipatable way (i.e., assuming that it's not a gas-fire, terrorist attack or other such calamitous end).

Yes, yes -- I realize it's supposedly morbid to look directly at the EXIT sign that shines brightly in the theatres of all our minds
-- but I've always held that one doesn't seriously appreciate one's life at all, so long as one remains unconscious that it will, after all end. That would be like watching a film without realizing that the end-credits must eventually roll -- can you imagine that? It would seem endlessly boring -- and perhaps, that IS why so many people seem to find their own lives dull -- because they imagine they'll never end.

So! I consider it completely normal to think about and make what plans I can for the eventuality, despite being mildly irritated that I can't really ever know for sure when it'll happen. It's like being packed for a journey that might occur at any moment -- for years to come. Of course it would be equally annoying and distracting to know the exact time and date -- as many authors/myth-writers have pointed out through their various speculations.

Still and all ... if I could have my way, then what I'd REALLY like is to be recycled in the manner of the ancient Persians and also not-so-ancient Tibetans. I don't mean the Parsi system, which focuses specifically on vultures, and requires a sub-caste of funerary functionaries to handle the remains -- I mean I'd like to die out in some location where a hungry bear/tiger/shark could enjoy a meal and perhaps live to survive another month or two. It would be, in my opinion, an ideal end to a life which has taken much pleasure from the flesh of other living things. Being gnawed at by rats and worms really doesn't do it for me -- I'd like to be absorbed by something big and hunky, which would do the job quickly and not leave remains to be picked over centuries from now.

I would particularly favour polar bears, Sunderbans tigers and hammerhead sharks -- i.e., any time after I claim to be setting out on a trek to the North Pole, Bengal or across uncharted oceans, having recently amended my will, is when this blog should be checked for end-"comments"!