Small town life isn’t always as idyllic (read boring) as it seems

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(This is partly a review of Ruskin Bond’s new book Tales of Fosterganj (Aleph), and partly a trip down nostalgia, reliving my time at Landour, a small hamlet in the hills of Uttarakhand and, more importantly, Bond’s place of residence.)

Landour, the home of writer Ruskin Bond, is decidedly a sleepy little hamlet. If you travel far enough up the cantankerous Mall Road of Mussourie, you will reach a narrow, winding little street, along which sit four tiny shops selling everything from shampoo sachets and tooth-brushes to excellent waffles,aloo paranthas and vanilla shakes.

If you sit here for a couple of hours, you will eventually sample their best teas and coffees, have meandering conversations with residents of the town, and even be offered lessons in Hindi by a Caucasian woman from one of the Scandinavian countries. Sundays see perhaps the most amount of excitement, as almost the entire population, numbering a few hundreds, turns out for Mass at St. Paul’s cathedral next door.

If you go beyond a two- kilometre radius from this point, there is nothing but wind-washed pine trees, long winding roads, panoramic views and a deep peaceful silence to keep you company. Landour is just the kind of place you’d want for a quiet vacation, where nothing really ever seems to happen.

The Fosterganj of Bond’s latest novel is deeply resonant of his chosen homestead. “Straddling a spur of the Mussourie range, as it dips into the Doon valley, Fosterganj came into existence some two hundred years ago and was almost immediately forgotten…a cluster of modest cottages, a straggling little bazaar, a post office, a crumbling castle, a mountain stream at the bottom of the hill, a winding footpath that took you either uphill or down…It reminded me a little of an English village, and indeed that was what it had once been; a tiny settlement on the outskirts of the larger hill station. But the British had long since gone, and the residents were now a fairly mixed lot, as we shall see,” begins our protagonist, a writer in search of a quiet corner and some recluse from the bustle of the big city.

Charmed by the apparent stillness of Fosterganj, he rents a room above the resident baker’s shop-cum-home; and makes friends with several very interesting oddballs rolling about town: Foster, the impoverished “landowner” and mendicant, the namesake of the town, who spends his time gardening, thinking up elaborate schemes to make some money that he will then spend on his daily ration of cheap whisky; Hassan the baker, the silent, wise watcher with a brutal history and whose 11 children are a constant source of amusement for our protagonist; Vishaal, the diligent banker and accountant rolled into one, taking care of everyone’s financial matters; and Sunil, the local thief who tries to turn over a new leaf by catching lizards for a man who makes saande-ka-tel that promises to make the user’s sex life a whole lot better.

What follows are adventures of all kinds — from serious threats like a spate of rabies and man-eating leopards, to a silly scramble for lizards all over the hillside — that constantly defeat the writer’s claim that nothing ever happens in Fosterganj. Among all the stories that he becomes a part of, the one about the ramshackle castle lost in the woods stands out, even in his own experience. Occupied by a strange mother-son duo that claims to be relatives of the royal family, the place is deliciously haunted, replete with ominous crows on windowsills and skeletons inside the king’s bed.

The story of Fosterganj, then, is the story of the people that inhabit it. Building narratives around a space is a fairly popular trope — the stories in R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days reveal this fictional village in south India through the eyes of a group of schoolboys; Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge does the same for the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, through the complicated but unconnected stories of the brash junior high school maths teacher. Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic Winesburg, Ohio is the story of this town told by George Willard, who spends his childhood and young adulthood in the small town; Siddharth Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut brought the capital of Bihar to life, lending it a degree of exoticism, when seen through the eyes of Ritwik Ray, the reporter who has returned to his hometown fresh after completing his master’s degree in Delhi. The charms of life in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, are considerable; the matrix this creates becomes the sustaining force for the space. That is the essence of this genre.

As is often the case with Ruskin Bond novels, a lot of which revolve around the first-person narratives of a writer-journalist type (characters you’d suspect of having a strong likeness with the author himself), it is his own experiences in the Doon valley, in Shimla and Delhi, enhanced for your reading pleasure by Bond’s rich imagination and signature easy style of prose, that populate his latest work of fiction too. Fosterganj is effectively Landour, but perhaps a looking glass version of it — a little inverted, and therefore so much more entertaining. Time may not run backwards here, as in C.S. Lewis’ sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but this certainly is an alternative world, one which Bond inhabits as completely as his quaint hometown.

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Used to pain, Unaccustomed to life

Jhumpa Lahiri’s narratives have always been about life, love and loss, in equal measures. All her books, The Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth, deal with one common overarching theme : adjustment. In the most recent of her books, Unaccustomed Earth, a compilation of short stories, she traces the lives of first or second generation migrant Bengalis in the USA. The stories deal with death, displacement, compromise and all that accompanies these themes in real life.

A woman and her father move on with life once the only thing that connects them, the wife and mother, has died of cancer. Another woman watches her mother fall in love with another man, sees her heart shattered, and tries to understand her values, the only thing that bind her mother to her father. The second half of the book is a novella of sorts, tracing the lives of a Bengali girl and boy, who grow up together, yet apart, through the trying circumstances of their separate lives. Falling in love eventually, only to lose it finally, the tragedy of their shared life is the reckless timing, even of nature.

All the stories reflect a despondency we are all familiar with, acquired through the harsh blows life doles out to us every now and then. But through the mild sense of the blues this book might envelop the you in, you sense the maturity of her characters and of their responses to everyday tragedies and the less commonplace dilemmas that accompany starting new lives in newer surroundings. The book is a good read for a languid winter afternoon, when you want to contemplate on the true meanings of everything that goes on around us.

You Are Here

You Are Here

You Are Here

I managed to finish reading Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s debut novel ‘You Are Here’  in about a week. Not that it is over-the-top intellectual, or just plain boring, but the story of Arshi’s ‘here n now’ is such that makes you pause and ponder, draw parallels, and meditate on how we all lead such similar lives. For all you know, the book could have been my story, with a few little adjustments, written just how i’d write it, again maybe not in such bold strokes.

The book is good.It is obvious that the writer is a blogger, because there’s that style of writing which gives primacy to telling your own story and your own thoughts. Long monologue type flashback sessions everywhere, intricate detailing of what she’s wearing and what he’s doing and even psychoanalysis make that much apparent.

But there are also glaring flaws that bring out the first-timer syndrome. Reddy’s thoughts and flashbacks sometimes don’t hold your attention like she’d like them to. In short, it gets boring at times. You can also sniff out a desperation to paint her protagonist and contemporaries as the new liberated Gen Y, where drugs, sex and alcohol are very important and unassuming parts of the misc-en-scene. I mean, sure, they really are part of this lifestyle, just not as glorified as she’s tryin to make it sound.

But despite these turn offs, the book managed to sustain my wandering attention, simply because i could identify with this twenty-something, who’s tryin to live it up in New Delhi and the New Times, and well, simply be part of the crowd. There’s a  description of how Arshi would have an Orkut-like social map in her head, where she’d link all her friends and acquaintances into a vast web of socialness. The book cover draws inspiration from this idea and flags the important chronological stations in her life. That’s probably the best part – deriving a tool for some semblance of organisation in life through cartography. Map up, i say!

One Hundred Years Of Solitude

Here’s an old piece, rediscovered. I love this book. And the man behind it.

one hundred years of solitude

one hundred years of solitude

When human nature endeavors to survive the arid desert of Time with all its might, Time too brings out its most ruthless weapons to quell it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ most famous novel, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, dictates such a hopeless predicament, while bringing forth much more of the fantastic in the face of the gross mask of reality the world feigns to wear. The novel talks of the rise and fall of Macondo, a secluded civilization in a distant plain somewhere in South America. More specifically, it talks about the trials and tribulations of five generations of the Buendia family, who are the founders of Macondo as well as the last ones to die in its ruins. We are given a vivid description of characters such as Ursula Iguaran, an unlikely but powerful matriarch, under whose rule the Buendia family as well as Macondo prospered; Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who had 17 boys during his days in the war; Remedios the Beauty, who ascended to heaven (literally!) as her rightful place of being; and Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo, the twins, who changed names in juvenile mischief and whose identities remained confused till their death as a consequence.
Macondo,a fascinating place, is endowed with all the characteristics of growth and existence and enriched by the imagination of the writer. Written in the post colonial form of writing called Magic Realism, the novel contains a myriad imagery, where storms of butterflies, clouds of yellow flowers, blue houses and incessant rain for four years seem more believable than the ugliness of civil war, the capitalism of a Banana Company, Guerilla warfare and a dictatorial government.

What is most fascinating, however, and what essentially is the crux of the novel is the final, irrevocable and endless solitude of each character of the Buendia family as well as of the whole community. Trapped in the cells of their minds, tortured by insomnia the characters seem to transcend the normal and exist on an exotic plane making them very enticing to the reader.

The novel is a masterpiece of read-between-the-lines revolutionary ideas, and what we as readers can enjoy is his somewhat satirical notion of a civilization. The existence of a strong political statement makes it intellectually stimulating and issues of life, love, identity and death are brought up without any answers. All in all, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a must read for all those who would like to indulge in a bit of contemporary reading. And otherwise.

Elizabeth Gilbert, and now Julia Roberts, ‘Eat Pray and Love’

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Sheer indulgence, this.

 Imagine travelling to three countries on the other side of the world, within the space of twelve months, and living on a thematic basis for four months at a time, the primary themes being gluttony, meditation and sheer adolescent romance. Imagine meeting people of all sorts in all sorts of situations, living in beautiful edenic garden full of orchids in the middle of Bali and steeping oneself in culture and heritage, totally getting under the skin of a place. and the people who make that place. And now imagine being paid (n i mean being sponsored from day 1 of said journey to the time one manages to settle back into everyday life back in dear ol’ Manhattan) to write a book about all the ‘adventures’ one might have on this stupendous trip of a lifetime!

Hell, you n i might not even ever be blessed with such good fortune. But the author of above mentioned book sure was. (And that’s a tautology). Liz Gilbert’s romantic fiction bestseller  sure shows that she was fortunate to have had the chance to account for all the wonderful things that populated her life for an entire year, and she knows it. Which might be why she spends quite a large part of her time being thankful. By doing the ‘smile meditation’, putting it through in her little diary, by helping her poor Indonesian woman buy a house, by hunting down restaurants that serve the best pizza in the world, and chomping her way through all she could eat, and finally, by falling in love with a ‘good’ man.

Of course, it all came at a price. She actually troops out in search of herself, her spirituality and some much needed happiness after a horrible divorce and more heart break while on the rebound.

Gilbert’s expression is as precious and endearing as the many people she meets and the many experiences she cherishes. Witticisms, insights and emotions tumble out in an unceasing outpour -she opens her heart out for you, and as you accompany her through sunshine and high tide, you’d feel like she was your closest buddy or even family. She builds her narrative around complete honesty, a fine sense of what goes into the makings of the world like we all know it, a highly liberal frame of mind and flexibility of the heart, a readiness to embrace it all, for she’s got love enough for the world. (mosquitoes, again, not included).

This journey is pivotal to her life in more ways than one. (And here I will display all my English Hons credibility.) It’s a lot things rolled into one trip of a lifetime. It’s a pilgrimage at one level, an eat-all-you-want parade, a nomadic irresolution of one’s destination in life and a transcendence of all sorts of boundaries which any society or upbringing maps into psyches. (Hah! i told ya!) And the fact that she goes beyond physical continental lines to attain her spirituality only becomes symbolic of the three different ‘I’s that she reveals to herself.

In all, terribly delightful. She makes you laugh and cry with her. Breathe the air around the world and feel the spirit of different civilisations. She finds her answers in the end, and she finds the handsome, rich, fabulous South American man for cherry on her cake, that she finally, finally has, and eats too. It’s a whole different science-fictional level of transformation – the tired but persevering snail (who carries her house on her back) turns into the New Age Buddha. Talk about transcendentalism!

Hope the forthcoming movie, and Julia Roberts, make the magic come alive on screen.