Mo!*

It is too much of a risk, thought Kate, sliding into the backseat next to her husband. Perhaps they should have heeded the internet chat group and gone with the ridiculously expensive tour group than pick some taxi-wala from the roadside. She felt secretly thrilled that she thought in Hinglish now! Mark caught her smile and put his arm around her shoulders, early morning fight forgotten. Well! and why not? She can’t be that worried if she is getting distracted by her Hinglish thoughts. The taxi was now going its usual breakneck speed, oblivious to traffic and accompanied by the cacophony of blaring horns that was now only marginally less nerve racking than it was two weeks ago when they landed in India. “I am still not entirely convinced, you know”, she said, not willing to let go of her worries all that easily. “But it is a brilliant idea, darling! You know we thought so at the time. Besides I can take this guy anytime with one hand tied behind my back!” Mark said nodding at the driver. Kate looked pointedly at his nascent beer-belly and smirked. “Aww…common babe! I am at least twice his size!” Which was true, of course. Before Kate could say anything. however, the driver turned right around and started to speak, making them instinctively lean back and yell “Road!” while simultaneously stomping on the imaginary brake. The driver, stunned, turned back and then grinned at them at the rear view mirror. “No problem, Sar no problem! I drive 4 years, aahn, not one accident. Don’t worry madame, not even one scratch, madam, don’t worry, don’t worry! Now only you come a? Just Arrived?” He said grinning superciliously at the two of them now. Kate sighed while Mark took this opening to engage the driver in a chat. He did that all the time in India and it never failed to surprise Kate. Not that Mark did it, but that Mark did it. The man who would grunt discouraging monosyllables at the New York cabbies staring pointedly at his iPhone now initiated conversations with everyone from the bell boy at their fancy hotel to taxi drivers. She couldn’t even blame it on the iPhone, because even at the hotel restaurant that had wi-fi, Mark had chatted away at the waiter while she googled TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet reviews. It was so different from their previous trips where Mark was the one planning everything and she just hung back and enjoyed the luxury of it. Now she was the one planning and Mark was the one living it up. It was fine, she was liking the planning, but she wished Mark was just a bit more involved. He just made on the spot decisions these days, no research no discussions, just…snap! and off we go. Like this taxi thing last night. They were having a great time at this out of the way restaurant that came highly recommended by people who “travel like a local” at TripAdvisor. Mark was so happy to be out of their comfort zone, eating with his hands and his happiness was so infectious she even washed her hands with the bar soap provided in the “Hand Wash” area! They were giggling like teenagers on their way back to the cozy, safe five star rated hotel room when Mark had said, “look, darling, a taxi stand. Let’s just ask one of these guys if they will take us out tomorrow! We had great fun today, it will be awesome tomorrow too!” and she had said yes, without thinking it through and let Mark talk to the driver and fix it all up. But then in the bright sunlight of the morning she had started having second thoughts. She just couldn’t resist checking for advice online and now she was too tensed for any adventure. There are so many ways this could go bad! But Mark and the driver were getting on like a house on fire. Maybe it will all work out, maybe.

The taxi turned off the main road onto a bumpy lane. The driver started to pay more attention to the road and Mark to the hutments on either side. Kate’s stomach plummeted at each bump and her temper sky rocketed at each click of Mark’s camera. After about half an hour of this, Kate couldn’t take it anymore and nudged Mark, “where is he taking us? Does he even know?” Mark looked surprised at her, ” To the rock temple, darling!” he said, like there could actually be a doubt! “But do you know this is the route? What if he takes us some place else?” “Oh! he’ll ask for directions, Sweets. Don’t you worry. These guys are not like the Chennai drivers, they stop for directions. The new age man, eh?!” he said nudging and winking at her. The driver had by now rolled down the window and called out. She turned to look at the porch of a house where she could see the U-shaped bend of a girl stirring something on the floor. “Paapa!” called out the driver. No response. “Mo!” he said raising his voice and the girl jerked up like a jack-in-the box with the most comical expression of bewilderment on her face. Despite everything, Kate burst out laughing.

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Amala breathed a sigh of relief! The house looked liked the wreckage after a flood, but at least there was no constant yelling and hustle bustle. The last week was a nightmare. First the kid had got a tooth ache and cried all night. Then just when the doctor’s narcotic had started to work, her brother got stung by the scorpion and literally brought the roof of the cowshed down. By the time her dad and uncle had fixed the roof, the tailor had brought the blouses for her sister’s wedding sarees and NONE of them fit! Oh, the pandemonium! The kid woke up, the dressing came off as the brother tripped on the ladder in his hurry to see what the shouting was all about, bringing his uncle down with him, her mother was shouting at the tailor, her sister was crying unconsolably and her father was yelling at everyone! Needless to say, they had all turned to her as the calm one to fix all their problems. She had sent the tailor off with alterations, reminded her mother she could use this as a bargaining chip to lower the prices or even get it free, dressed her brother’s foot again, and sang to the kid to get him to go back to sleep. If that was a bad start to the week, it only got worse from there. The Mandap decorator dropped by to say he ran out of cloth for the wedding dias, the patched roof started to leak, one of the calves decided this was a good time to make a bid for escape** and the dentist decided to pull the kid’s teeth out. She just wanted some quiet! Peace was not important, if only she could get quiet! If they would all just go crazy silently she could still deal with it. But being called every five minutes in tones ranging from mere panic to abject terror was driving her insane! Why does her family have to be so loud? Fear, tension, worry, fun, happiness all had the same reaction. Loud! Finally, after a lot of behind the scenes fixing by her, she had packed them all off to the wedding hall a day before. She can get the house ready now for the visitors arriving after the wedding, she said. This was the best time to do it, or there would be too much hurry burry later. We need to look our best for the groom’s people. She really didn’t need to see the hall again before the wedding. Yes, of course she will be there bright and early on the wedding day! It is only a 10 min walk, no need to worry. Yes, she will remember to feed the cows before she leaves. And finally! almost like a miracle they had all left and the blissful quiet settled around her! All she had to do, she could do by herself. She picked up the broom and had cleared out the entire house before noon. And no one called to her, not one peep! Not even the cows. It was blissful.She was at the porch, the last of the clean ups. She was so engrossed in the silence she didn’t hear the car draw up. She vaguely registered a shout until, someone yelled out the dreaded word. “Mo!” they said and she jerked up stunned that her quiet could be broken so soon.

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* Short for Amma, a term of endearment used for young women and girls in south Tamil Nadu

** He had the right idea.


The making of a dictionary: The Professor and the Madman

What do you know about the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary?  Not the  trivia that gets you the tiebreaker in your quiz competition, but the actual story behind its making and the enormity of the project. If there was a biography written about it wouldn’t you snap it up to read it? Do you really need enticements like “…the unlikely friendship”, “…madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men” etc? And yet, that is the way the publishers decided to sell this book.  And having set up the stage for a melodrama, they end up with an anticlimax that is so excruciating you can no longer laugh it off. I suppose I should have realized from the blurb on the front cover  “A tale of murder, insanity and making of the Oxford English Dictionary” that the making of the dictionary would be given the last priority. All I can say in excuse is that my kindle version did not have this blurb and so was unprepared.

It is a pity that such an interesting story should be written this way. It is not just the oxymorons (almost precisely) or the disruptive narrative but the hyperbole and the complete fantasizing that gets my goat. It is a story about the writing of the  Dictionary and it uses words inappropriately. Here is an example:” ….. said an anonymous note in the hospital ward archives” then a paragraph later ” …that note was written by the warden” !!! If the author of the note is known, the note is not “anonymous” is it?!

But what is worse is that the author wants to cover so much ground. He is not content with just narrating the interesting events that lead to two very dissimilar men working on the same project and forming an unlikely friendship, the character of each of these men, and their personal history. He also wants to write a treatise on Victorian mental disease treatment practices, fantasize about a thoroughly non-existent relationship between one of the protagonists and the survivor of his actions (even when there seems to be no factual evidence to support such  theory!)  and comment on the supposed meagerness of the funeral arrangements. All I can say is that the editor seems to have mislaid his red pen.

As if this wasn’t enough, the plot devices* are so atrocious I practically felt like throwing the book at the author. I realize that biographers always have to contend with a lack of facts partly because of lost or hard to find evidence and partly because the events or the protagonist lived in an era where answers to certain questions where beyond the scope of prevalent technology. In such instances they resort to hypotheses about what could have happened. But these suppositions are usually presented with some evidence of plausibility. Here the hypotheses are completely out of the blue. I can only imagine the editors said, spice it up a bit there, mate, give the readers something to turn the page for.**

Even if that were the case, could you not keep it succinct? Do you have to go on and on about something that you have no reason to believe happened? Not content with fantasizing, must you also ramble? There are so many repetitions and so many seemingly random incidences thrown in in a haphazard way that it obstructs the flow of the narrative and makes for really hard reading. It is like that old uncle or grandpa at family get-togethers whose reminiscences are not only repetitive but also convoluted and never-ending.

I think I would have been better served reading the companion reading for the actual facts than this book. And so I say read only if you are an extraordinarily patient person who has a really high tolerance for boredom or if you are marooned on a lonely island with nothing else to do and nobody to talk to. Everybody else stick to Wiki.

* I realize this is not a fiction piece and hence cannot have plot devices, but trust me, there is so much fantasizing of the cause of the “madman’s” madness it might as well have been fiction.

** I can write this in a review, which by definition is a personal opinion about something. You can’t write this in a biography, which is supposed to be an account of actual events/people/lives; i.e. not a personal opinion.


Traffic

Little, fuzzy red lights in a row, aglow in front of her all along the curve of the road. Reminded her of Marine Drive back home. “Only it is ruby necklace, not pearl”, she thought to herself in the peaceful quiet of the car punctuated by the swish-click of the wipers. Her husband had sworn by I-95 and here she was on 485 and it was bumper to bumper. She had heard enough of the traffic report to know that she was not going anywhere at anything more than 5 miles an hour for at least another 30 min. She had switched off the radio and sat savoring the muted silence in the car. How different traffic here is, from India, she thought. There no matter how tightly you shut the windows and how tinted the glass, you could never have this feeling of isolation. When she had come to this country first, the very first car ride, from the airport to her husband’s one-bedroom apartment, she had thought her ears had not popped yet. Only later did she realize that sound was just muted here. Faint echos. Almost as if pushing their way through all that empty space, trees and lawns, and manicured gardens, they arrived at your ears, tired and exhausted, capable only of evoking a faint memory of their origin. Nothing was sharp, or distinct  like she had forgotten to remove cotton wool from her ears. She had used the q-tips very generously those days. The TV was loud, the shower radio on high, anything to push back that stifling quiet.

Now, she welcomed it with open arms. It was like her own private cocoon, nourishing, keeping her sane, giving a rest to her ears. It spoke to her of the unknowable comfort, peace and safety people say the baby feels in the womb. It eased out the tensions, worries, panic and the go! go! go! that life had become these days. Her sanctuary, her little slice of heaven. Her girl friends were always on about “me time” that they snatch out of their busy lives. The spa, they said. Interminable, annoying music that no one in their right minds found relaxing, she thought. Mani-pedi, they gushed. Chatter-chatter and the nagging worry of being judged, she sighed. The mall, finding that beloved shoe, that perfect top, they rhapsodized. The crowds! the jostle! she shuddered. Traffic, she sighed serenely. Horrified looks they gave her before they broke out into the most vitriolic diatribe she had ever heard. Even religious bigots didn’t hate each other as much as people hated traffic. It should have been, “Traffic-the great leveler”, not “Death”, she thought, before shutting up and agreeing with them for fear they thought she was really weird. She knew better now to keep her little secret sanctuary to herself.

She had managed to convert only one person and that was enough for her. They took turns every other Friday to lose themselves in peak hour traffic on the way back from work. But there were rules though. You couldn’t take a detour to run into traffic. You had to choose a highway at the start of the journey and stick to it and take your chances.

“40 mins”! her husband said tight-lipped and bleary-eyed as he opened the door to her. She smiled triumphantly at him, noting the envy behind the irritation and exhaustion. “That ought to learn ya” she said in her fake southern accent as she picked up and tossed a squeaky toy she had stepped on into the basket. “I told you you can never go wrong with 485 on a Friday evening. You should have listened last week! Is he in bed?”

“Yes”, sighed her husband, her one convert, as he flopped onto the couch next to her.


Where history meets fiction- The Prague Cemetery

As readers of this blog might know, I am a crazy fan of Umberto Eco books. However, I do agree that he gets carried away by all that knowledge of history of medieval Europe he has gathered, that his books are littered with so many names, places and historical incidences that it is easy to get lost in the history and lose the plot. The trick to getting over these aspects of his books are to read it in broad strokes and not pay attention to the minute details*. You don’t need the minute details to appreciate the story, but if you don’t get the broad picture, you loose the beauty of the plot.

I got this book almost 3 years ago very soon after it was released, as a gift from my sister to her friend. I was the postman in this long distance love affair :/ I couldn’t meet the friend for the longest time and during that time there were days when the only way to pass the heat-soaked afternoons was to curl up with a good book. Having an Eco book within arm’s reach was too much of a temptation for me and I succumbed. Of course Fate intervened and the very next day the friend showed up to claim her gift and off it went leaving me hanging. Fate was not entirely cruel, however, as it packed the remaining days of my trip with too much activity for me to miss the book and 3 years later, I finally managed to get my hands on it again and this time read it through!

I am sure all of us are aware of the Protocols of the Elders of the Zion and the role it played in the greatest unconscionable act of ethnic cleansing that modern Europe witnessed i.e. the Holocaust. The Prague Cemetery is the author’s imagination of how that book came into existence**. Fictitious characters are cleverly intertwined with actual historical ones that it is impossible to know where reality ends and imagination begins. Eco does with characters what fantasy writers do with places. The grandfather of the protagonist and the protagonist himself are to The Prague Cemetery what Charring Cross road and Diagon Alley are to the Harry Potter series. The weave is so intricate and seamless that I had to go to Wiki to figure out who is real and who isn’t.

Eco grips you right off the bat when he starts the book with the protagonist describing his opinion of every single ethnic/cultural group native to Europe mainly culled from his grandfather. And what an opinion it is for sure! Every single group, be they Italian, German, French, Hebrew,etc., is described in the most ribald terms possible, stripped apart and set up on the pillory to be laughed at or despised according to the reader’s temperament. And what he has the protagonist say about the different religious sects of both Christianity and Judaism is a brilliant essay on the psyche of a bigot! Only of course he is not so much a bigot as an equal opportunity hater. Nevertheless, it sets the tone of the book and so sets the precedent for what comes in the end, i.e. the Protocols of the Elders of the Zion.

Like all Eco books, the middle gets a little too involved and heavy, but in this case it still is interesting because of the end.  Eco weaves his magic in his inimitable style and you get the feeling of being propelled through history as irresistibly as the “author” of the conspiracy. There is no end to intrigue and plots within plots and as usual I am in awe of how he manages to hold all the strings, allowing them to get entangled in some places but always unravelling them so effortlessly as to make it seem almost magical.

There are of course shades of The Focoult’s Pendulum in this, but the end is not as ironic. At the end of this book, I am more inclined to believe Eco’s version as real than perhaps what “truth” might actually turn out to be. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it is impossible to review this book without giving away the crux of the matter! So on that note, I will conclude by merely requesting all of you to go read the book :)

 

 

 

 

* unless of course the minute historical details are the reason you read the book in which case, screw the plot!

** this is all I am going to say about the details in the story. If you want more, go read it :/


Boomerang

Thud! The sound carried over the distance through the dewy early morning air that was otherwise silent and drowsy in that pre-dawn stupor. It had hit the damn tree again. The only reason Priya didn’t burst into tears was because she was hopping mad.
“That was good, no, Chellam?” said her mother, the eternal cheerleader. Priya could have rolled around in mud, ignored personal hygiene and acted like a demented banshee having a bad day and her mother would still have said, “my Chellam, so good!”. On a normal day she would have just ignored it, but today was not a normal day. Today, she gritted her teeth and yelled back,” No, Ma. That was NOT good. It is supposed to clear the tree and come back!” as she walked towards the tree to retrieve her boomerang. To which of course her mother said, “Oh! That’s OK, Chellam. You will get it!”

By the time she got back, her mother had gone back inside with the milk can, leaving Lakshmi and Rani to stare accusingly at her while chewing their cud.

“Oh don’t even think of giving me that look. You know you bumped her into the dung last week, because she kept saying, “Just one more drop, Lukkuma. You can do it!” with every squeeze.”

Lakshmi kept chewing cud and glared imperturbably at her.

“Besides, she doesn’t understand. The records people are coming TODAY. I HAVE to clear the damn tree. That is the 1,500 ft mark. It will be the world record!” Priya said, her voice raising to a squeak at the end.

Lakshmi burped and Rani wagged her ears disturbing the flies camped there, still looking unperturbed.

“You are right”, she said. “I need to be calm. I will be calm. I can do it, ” she straightened her shoulders and nodded and caught sight of her mother at the kitchen window, grinning at her. The calming breath she held came out in a huff. She shook her head to clear it and took her stance. Her left leg firm in front of her, right on the line. She lifted her left arm to point out at the tree and the horizon further out. She raised her right arm, lifted her right leg and….flick. The wedge of wood, she had whittled and polished and slaved over, flew, almost gracefully. It cleared the tree soaring high above the tallest branch and came right back at her making a ‘whup, whup, whup’ noise. She took a half step to the right and made a clean catch, hearing nothing but the whiz of the air, and feeling nothing but the comforting weight and smoothness of the wood. Then the sound rushed in and she heard her mother squealing and clapping and running to her and she grinned and ran and hugged her, hopping together in glee while the cows started at them with the same bovine disdain they always had.

“You did it! Hooray!!” said her mother, sounding like Dora, the explorer with an Indian accent.


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