Sunday, September 30, 2007

Nalini Jameela

The first time I heard about Nalini Jameela was perhaps a year ago, in a newspaper article. There was a photograph of her -- she has a pleasant face, not a young woman's face, but pleasant, thoughtful and somehow questing. Maybe the tilt of her head, the gaze directed upwards was deliberately posed to give that impression.

But what caught my attention and caused me to clip the item out of the paper -- NOT something I do often -- was that she is a sex-worker, living and working in Kerala, who had written her autobiography and got it published.

Now her autobiography, originally in malayalam has been re-published in English, by by Madras-based WESTLAND(I'll post a link here when/if I find one). I picked up copies at my friend (and Westland editor) Nilanjana Roy's home and speed-read my way through the book last night. It's not long -- 143 pages -- and its translation doesn't feel right -- but I would say it makes complusory reading.

It is, in many ways a shocking book -- NOT because of what it says about the life of a sex-worker but for what it reveals about the lives of so-called "ordinary" Indians. Jameela's story is one of extraordinary resilience -- but how can I use this word "extraordinary" without qualifying it? Alongside her story, like the bystanders whose faces enter the frames of photographs of filmstars posing in public places, are all the others with whom she interacts. They are all equally resilient, long-suffering and strong -- surely as extraordinary, if measured against the yardstick of the lives we read about in novels or learn about through movies. Against the backdrop of Jameela's account, however, "ordinary" and "extraordinary" cease to have much meaning -- she shows us that the huge majority of "ordinary" people have "extraordinary" experiences, in which case they are no longer extraordinary in the sense of unusual, but merely the norm -- the norm that is never acknowledged on its own terms, the norm that is pixelled out of the record by the "India Shining" mythologizers.

Jameela's life and the lives of the huge majority of those amongst whom she lives -- not just sex-workers, but the tradesmen, the rickshawallas, the policemen, the small hoteliers -- are marked by unrelenting insecurity, hampered by such extremes of heartlessness that it is really difficult to understand how they can bear to face up to their realities -- yet the very fact that they do, is a clear indication that it is I who am mistaken, as I judge these lives against the smug certitudes of my own (and of others like me).

The malayalam edition of her book was snapped up -- 13,000 copies were sold in the first 100 days, according to the introduction of this book. It is not a salacious book -- no-one reading it, I believe, is likely to get any cheap thrills from it. To some extent, I miss the spice that has been (I think deliberately) left out. Then again, I can see that a book like this needs to be super-decorous in its appearance and the language of its presentation, in order to avoid being driven underground by its subject-matter. How ironic that less provocative books -- lacy fictions built on middle-aged fantasies -- are decked out like scarlet ladies, while this one, about and by a scarlet lady, looks as meek and saintly as a vegetarian recipe book!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

My Phone Line's Down

-- and it's been down for 4 days already. The word is that the cable's been "stolen" from right outside the MTNL centre -- not quite sure what type of enterprising thieves actually dig up telephone cables in order to steal them -- but anyway. That's the reason for various levels of silence in recent days ...
[posted from Nilroy's home]

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Apparently, in my review in OUTLOOK MAGAZINE of THE ELEPHANTA SUITE I managed to suggest that I didn't like the book. I'm not sure why this this happens -- this isn't the first time -- maybe because I prefer to use up my 300 words giving a reader a sense of what the book's about rather than how much I liked or disliked it.

Anyway -- just in case it isn't clear -- I DID like the book. Quite a bit. I've already bought my first give-away copy and plan several more and my house copy is "travelling".

The three long short stories ("novellas"? Am never very sure when a short story becomes a novella. I would call these short stories) that make up the book certainly aren't cute and cuddly. Each story involves American characters interacting with Indians, in India. Neither culture is presented with its best foot forward. The overwhelming characteristic that comes through is greed -- interlocking neatly in some ways, and then, disastrously NOT.

What I always like about Theroux's prose is the clinical precision of his observations. He uses his characters like the subjects of a dissection, aimed at exposing one or two obscure glands, while he describes the ethos that surrounds the operation with a casual, throwaway flair. Ultimately, however, the "story" is secondary to the descriptions.

The picturesque India of tourist brochures is almost wholly obscured behind the maelstrom of crowds/dirt/beggars that assaults the senses of visitors from quieter, cooler climes. Many Indians regard this view of India as false and "colonial" (the epithet that Indian reviewers hurl at any foreign author who is less than enchanted by the subcontinent). I would call it "unsentimental" rather than colonial. Theroux's is the ultimate unsentimental gaze -- he reports on emotions without drowning in them -- and I thank him for his cool detachment.

Go on -- buy the book -- read it -- and pass it on. Especially to anyone planning a trip in this direction ...

Monday, September 10, 2007


An amusement sent to me by my niece M!
AMAZINGLY SIMPLE HOME REMEDIES (don't try any of these
at home)

1. If you are choking on an ice cube, don't panic.
Simply pour a cup of boiling water down your throat
and presto. The blockage will be almost instantly

2. Clumsy? Avoid cutting yourself while slicing
vegetables by getting someone else to hold them while
you chop away.

3. Avoid arguments with your partner about lifting the
toilet seat by simply using the sink.

4. For high blood pressure sufferers: simply cut
yourself and bleed for a few minutes, thus reducing
the pressure in your veins. Remember to use a timer.

5. A mouse trap, placed on top of your alarm clock,
will prevent you from rolling over and going back to
sleep after you hit the snooze button.

6. If you have a bad cough, take a large dose of
laxatives. Then you will be afraid to cough.

7. Have a bad toothache? Smash your thumb with a
hammer and you will forget about the toothache.

8. Sometimes, we just need to remember what the rules
of life really are: You only need two tools: WD-40 and
Duct Tape. If it doesn't move and should, use the
WD-40. If it shouldn't move and does, use the duct

9. Remember: Everyone seems normal until you get to
know them.

10. Never pass up an opportunity to go to the

11. If you woke up breathing, congratulations! You get
another chance.

12. And finally, be really nice to your family and
friends; you never know when you might need them to
empty your bedpan.

*Don't know what the DARWIN AWARDS are? Prepare to grin ...

Thursday, September 06, 2007


From the incomparable Anvar Alikhan comes this nugget of information:

Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern. For example:

Gadsby is an English-language novel consisting of 50,000 words, none of which contain the letter “e.”
The 2004 French novel Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere) by Michel Thaler was written entirely without verbs.
Cadaeic Cadenza is a short story by Mike Keith that uses the digits of pi as the length of words.
Never Again is a novel by Doug Nufer in which no word is used more than once.
Alphabetical Africa is a book by Walter Abish in which the first chapter only uses words that begin with the letter "a," while the second chapter incorporates the letter "b," and then "c," etc. Once the alphabet is finished, Abish takes letters away, one at a time, until the last chapter, leaving only words that begin with the letter "a."
Mary Godolphin produced versions of Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe Words of One Syllable.
One famous example from the Chinese language is The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den which consists of 92 characters ... all with the sound shi!

Meanwhile! My life has recently been overtaken (yet again!) by ... hold your breath ... FACEBOOK. I am resisting it in small ways -- for instance, I don't spend the WHOLE day online, but only 15 hours out of 24. Quite restrained, wouldn't you say? I've not signed up using my name as a (possibly feeble) means of keeping my presence there discreet but I realize this is a bit idiotic considering the site is really a form of existential striptease in which the participants hang all the wet and sticky bits of their lives out on the clothesline of the web for all to see. Since I need to reserve my sticky bits for exposure in my books, I simply can't afford to do any of that! So if some of you avid Facebookers want to catch up with my FB persona you're going to have to post messages to me and if I feel like it, I'll respond with a link and handle.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Free Heart Surgery

A friend who lives Madurai (I met him last year, at the American College) sent me a message to share with as wide a circle of people as possible. So here it is:

For all kinds of Heart-Related Surgeries, Free of Cost please contact:
Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences
EPIP Area, Whitefield,
Bangalore 560 066,
Karnataka, INDIA.
Telephone: +91- 080- 28411500
Fax +91 - 080- 28411502
You can visit Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences online for further links and/or to clear up any doubts you might have about the authenticity of the institution. There are probably hundreds of people out there who might benefit from this information, so I figure it's worth passing on!

And meanwhile, on the subject of good works, I thought I'd share this list of Very Special People that MSN created. While I don't like their title for the list -- 10 Amazing Women You've Never Heard Of -- because in the first place I HAVE heard of some of them (at least five) and in the second place it seems a strangely condescending inclusion principle -- I must admit that I was impressed by the list and was glad to have pictures and brief bio-data to remind me of them.

I was going to post a picture to accompany the list, but decided against it on second thoughts. If you're curious, go click the link!