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Namma* Bengaluru. Is it?

October 16, 2012

I moved to a new city, away from family and friends. The move has been a positive one over all. Great climate, bustling life around narrow lanes, civil traffic, open minded and laid-back people are things, I have come to adore about Bangalore. Moreover, you find passers by on the road, auto drivers, domestic help and electricians that can partially converse in english. Such a thing is unheard of in Delhi and suburbs, which is where I come from. If it were to happen there, it would evoke great surprise and even joy, especially from the tens of thousands of non-hindi speaking people that moved there. But here, in Bangalore, you can get by without having to learn the local language which, by the way, is not a great idea.

But, have you ever seen a population of an entire city, nearly every single person who lived there for a while, make the same grammatical mistake? It must have been unheard of in recorded linguistic history. Not anymore. Bangaloreans love to use the tag question “is it?” to turn most statements into questions. It does not matter if the subject of the statement is a singular or plural. It does not matter if the tone of the statement is positive or negative. It does not matter what person the statement is in. There is always, surely a benign little “Is it?” sitting around the corner, blinking innocently into your evil, scary face, perhaps fulfilling a secret illicit pact it made with Bangaloreans.

You are coming. Is it? (what is the ‘it’ here?)
You are an Architect. Is it? (goes the radio jockey on air)
You can sing. Is it?
We are meeting at the Hard Rock Cafe. Is it?
Tomorrow is a holiday. Is it?

This usage is not limited solely to people who are not educated. It’s very common to find people, who graduated from good schools and colleges, where the medium of instruction is english, use it. Highly educated people, conform to this usage too. Even those, that have their doctorate theses on such fancy topics, the titles of which, 99% of general population (me inclusive), would struggle to understand.

Like people of any other city, Bangaloreans make other errors too. But, this one is their pet peeve. Everyday, I witness at least one “Is it?”. Usually, from the same set of people. Occasionally, when I talk to strangers or long lost friends, chances are, I encounter more “Is it?”‘s. When I quietly chuckle and ask them, “You have lived here for a while. Haven’t you?” they are amazed at how I could guess that, totally missing the point. I want to scream at the top of my lungs, claws in the air in a worrisome way when I am made witness to this ghastly usage. The problem is so pronounced here, that this usage is on the verge of acceptance in this city — A city that prides itself in being a literary hotbed with its popular second hand bookstores, bookworms, book clubs, upcoming and established authors.

Before it becomes common usage, if you are a Bangalorean, please stand up for the right “Is it?” and take down the wrong ones. I would not at all be worried if it was one person or a small set of people who were using this incorrectly. No, please do not get me wrong. I ask you not, to act as though your whole life is pinned on it. I ask you not, to become a grammar nazi. A little pointing out here and there would help!

Namma* : A kannada word that translates to “our”.

Lolita – Vladimir Nobokov

October 2, 2012

The good earth book cover
I will never think of 12 year old girls the same way again. Nymphs. Nymphettes. Nymphomania. Humbert Humbert is obsessed with nymphettes. particularly, with the idea of procreating with a certain pet of his and you never have to wonder why. He explains the motive in great detail. It is a very pure, raw, unapologetic, beautiful, sexy, titillating, perverse, dark and abstract first person account of an offense and what makes this darker is that, Dolores Haze (Lolita), the victim is a consenting accomplice.

Lolita, who already has lost her virginity to a boy her age does not so much as lose her innocence when they first commit the act. Over time, thru their travels and stays thru The Enchanted Hunter, Elphinstone, Timber hotel, Poplar shades, Lacework Cabins and many other such motels and hotels, he snaps her ties with friends, protective guardians, community and other natural ties and relations which a girl of her age might have and goes on to gradually break her, still explaining to the “jury”, his motive at each step.

What makes this even more shocking is, Humbert thinks of himself as a caring, protective parent who wishes Dolores the best in life. About the act of sex itself, there are no pornographic descriptions, lewd references or explicit passages. He even makes an effort to make sure, she does not lose out on exploring her talents as any normal parent would – talents of acting, tennis and such. The word ‘nymph’ occurs a few hundred times in many forms but almost never do you see the word ‘pedophilia’ in the book.

Never had I felt the need to discuss a book midway thru as this one. This book had been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read for a long time as I knew this was going to be a difficult read. The big question was, should I read something I do not believe in? Would you as an atheist read a deeply religious story? A very well written one, mind you. And yet, I continued reading for, if you read and even enjoy reading world war fiction, that does not really make you an approver, fan and evangelist of world wars. And then, there were many other questions which I will not bore you with.

This book is not an easy one to read and I tried to trick myself into thinking Lolita is a 20 something. Even if she is that, a 20 something, the offenses committed would not be lost, neither would be the brutality and the charm. But, our dear Humbert Humbert would never let you get away with that. He has to mention her little limbs here, a childish giggle there, a slender neck here and her teenage reading everywhere. He speaks of her with an excited animation and his instincts take over when he sees her nymphette behavior and speaks of her with parental warmth otherwise.

English is Vladimir Nobakov’s 3rd Language and that makes the book twice as good. I wonder if it is inspite of it, that the prose is so brilliant or because of it. If you are looking for a un-put-downable book to read with well defined characters, this is most certainly not the one. The characters are abstract, evil, good, cocky, all shades in between and a tad unpredictable. The prose spills from word to word, sentence to sentence and is clever, lucid, abstract, dandy, flamboyant, and even buoyant. You would think and anticipate what he wants you to, for he would have planted a seed of an idea for anticipation without you even noticing. He is the master storyteller. He is the best artist of puppetry and the puppet is your mind – he pulls the strings and makes it move anyway he pleases.

Kindled fire burns my paper backs

June 1, 2011

The high point of my recent past was, buying my new Kindle. I’m excited! The best thing is, it took far fewer adjustments to switch from paper books than I thought it would take. And then, there are some useful things you could do in Kindle that you cannot do with a real book.

An ancient feature, which is, the ability to change font size, turned out very useful in kindle. I was traveling and, a man sitting next to me in the airplane was peeping into my book. I did not mind his curiosity to know the content of the page I was reading but the act itself, that of, breathing down my neck was extremely irritating. So, I acted mean and changed the font size to the smallest available and it was not hard at all for me to read at that size and O’course, it helped getting that gentleman off my back. Text to speech is another cool feature, though I do not use it much. A person I know says, he uses text to speech when driving to work. I think, that is a neat use case. Though, I think, I will not be able to drive when listening to a book.

Now, the most annoying thing with Kindle is, having to deal with the-kid-in-a-candy-store syndrome. I have access to all my books right on my device and also all books I can think of, just a few finger taps away. I do not even need to get up and go to the book shelf to fetch a new book. As a result, I find myself switching between books way too much. One evening, I spent a great deal of time deciding what to read, started book-hopping (if such a phrase exists) and before I could even finish the first 10 pages of the book I finally picked, fell asleep, which, let me assure you, has nothing to do with the content of the book I picked.

Another annoying thing, which is a close second is, there is no way to turn a bunch of pages to skip them. When I’m re-reading a book, I skip boring parts. In kindle, you only get to traverse the book page by page or go to the index and traverse chapter by chapter. This should be very easy for Amazon to fix.

The first thing most people do when they pick up a book is, look at the cover. The next thing is, see the back cover and check out the synopsis and those one line reviews from a famous newspaper or a famous author. I do not see why ebooks would not have back covers when they have front covers. This has to be the second most annoying thing.

Kindle does make up for its little flaws with excellent portability. And then, there are so many free ebooks and, the paid ones are so easily accessible and cost just as much as paper back editions if not lesser. And then, there are e-libraries. It is as easy to read from a kindle as it is to read from a real book. I have read six books so far on my kindle and the e-ink technology totally rocks!

But, I do miss the smell of a book and the sound of turning a page. What? Really! Some books smell particularly good. You would know if you read with books close enough to your nose. But, I have given into the fact that, words in a book are more important than its physical self. I can’t imagine our old book club discussing the smell of an old book versus the smell of a new one, the font, the paper quality, the glossiness of the cover, so on and so forth.


February 15, 2011

As a reader of this blog, you might know that I’m a cinophile. When reading books based in China, I was more than once intrigued by references to Japan. Enough to want to discover a new culture. I could not get many recommendations from people I know for books set in Japan. So if you know of any set during or after WWII, please let me know.

After seeing the movie, ‘The memoirs of Ghesia’ a couple of times, I read the book. The book was not what I was expecting it to be after seeing the movie. The plot was different, the names of a few characters were different. May be it is a personal bias but, I found the book much better.

Of the genre: Historical fiction

November 16, 2009

Reading ‘The Living Reed’ by Pearl S Buck got me thinking about this.

Pearl S Buck lived for several decades in China and so we have reason to believe, most of her depections of the county and her people must be close to accurate. But Ms Buck on Korea? I’m not so sure of the authenticity of the facts presented . But, that should be alright, this is historical fiction. Or is it really alright? I am glad I thought of this now, after having read several books that fall into the said category.

Andrew Graham Dixon, a British art historian says –

The historical novel has always been a literary form at war with itself. The very term, implying a fiction somehow grounded in fact – a lie with obscure obligations to the truth – is suggestive of the contradictions of the genre.

It is not only him, many think, historical fiction is “history told as a story”. Actually, it is not! It is fiction. Some would say “fiction set in the past” which I find more acceptable but, do not completely agree with.

Defining historical fiction is tricky. Many things here are subjective. There are many opinions on how far in the past must a work be – for it to be classified historical rather than contemporary. Sir Walter Scott suggested that “historical” means, at least two generations in the past. More recent authors have suggested that 25 years would be a reasonable amount. Society of historical fiction says, the events in the book must have happened fifty or more years in the past.

Whose past is it? The authors or the readers? Some argue, it is the authors past saying, “The author should never personally experience the era described “. This, for a good reason: most stories are not just vivid imaginations of the authors. They are in fact closely related either consciously or unconsciously to the views of the author on an event. The view is more often than not, more dramatic if the author lived during the era. This bias, tends to distort the presentation of the event, as opposed to an unbiased presentation, that is based on research.

Some would say, it is the reader’s past that differentiates contemporary and historical fiction. I have seen “The diary of a young girl” being categorized as historical fiction. Going by this, all biographies / autobiographies, at some point in the future, would be historical fiction. But if we go with the “author’s past” definition, some very important works that have been long categorized as historical fiction would no longer fall into this – works like story of Wenamun, The Good Earth, etc.

A more interesting question is – does the book not have some obligation to the truth? How much of truth must be there? and, how much fiction is allowed before the book is classified as fantasy? The answer depends on who you ask.

Sarah Johnson, Assistant Professor, Eastern Illinois University defines two historical fictions – one, “genre historical fiction” and another “literary historical fiction”

“Genre historical fiction,” by which I mean historical fiction that simply goes out to tell a good story, has always been popular with readers, if library circulation figures are anything to go by.

In this liberal description, the inspiration is from historical facts which is not necessarily same as truth. To avoid taking off tangentially, let’s just say, history is a body of material that has survived over time and political interests of people. This would let some books bordering between fanstasy and history sneek into historical fiction.

The goal of literary historical fiction is not to show readers exactly what life was like in a historical time period, although it may have that effect. Rather, authors who write literary historical center their tales not on the historical setting but on the plot, which may help us better understand the differences (or parallels) between then and now, and on characters who manage to transcend time and speak to us from their own perspective in a way that we, today, can understand. One definition of literary historical fiction is “fiction set in the past but which emphasizes themes that pertain back to the present.”

This, I think is the upper limit, as in, the border between historical fiction and history text books. Most books I’ve read fall between the two bounds Sarah speaks of. As a reader of historical fiction, what I look for is, truth about established world events. The author should not alter important facts about famous people without research and evidence. However, the author can fill in details, where there are none to give flesh and blood to the story. For instance, we do not know what Tsu Hzi’s food habits were like. So, it is ok if the author says, she likes eating Chinese cabbage / sweet meats or even kimchee. But it is not ok if the author says, she liked pasta. There is a possibility she indeed liked pasta – but that claim requires evidence for, it is not believable. I would not take kindly to an author that gets popular folktales/proverbs wrong. Anachronisms are the worst things in any book – especially, historical fiction. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not a stickler for perfection. Say, you are reading a book set in ancient (200 BC) Greece. If someone uses words like – “debriefing”, “out of the box”, “bounce ideas of each other” and such, would that not disturb you?

What I am not looking for is an accurate and dry account of the event(s). If that was what I was looking for, I would go read history. What I’m looking for is an account of the historical event from within the event – thru the eyes of the protagonist or people who might not have played an important role, but have lived in such times and have been impacted by the larger events. Inaccurate every day activities and people descriptions are entirely unacceptable since that is the story of the people, the spirit of the book – the reason for reading historical fiction. What I’m looking for is the truth of the spirit.

The Good Earth – Pearl S Buck

September 25, 2009

[Warning: This is a post on the most popular book of my most favorite author and I think, the author did not get her due. So, kindly excuse me if I go a little overboard.]

This book is so popular, most of you must have read it as a part of high school course. I had not.

More than 7 decades ago, The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck won the Pulitzer Prize and then, helped the author to go on and win the Nobel. The Good Earth reads like poetry of the war, of china, of farmers (some claim, not peasants), of women and men, of marriage between them, of extreme poverty and riches and, of birth and death. The good earth book cover

This is set in rural China and, is a rags to riches story of a farmer and his family. The book begins on the wedding morning of Wang Lang who lives with his old father – with O-Lan, a slave girl at the great house in the town. The rest of the book is about what they go thru during the course of their lives.

When drought strikes, they travel to a city. There, they survive the poverty with great difficulty, undergoing a lot of life changes. Then, unexpectly, they come into riches. With these new found riches, they go back home and buy land, by which time the draught is gone, and go on to prosper.

O-Lan is the real hero of the book and she has a major part to play in charting the course of life of her family. Her strength and knowledge help the family survive in bad times and prosper in good times.

The feminism in the book is subtle and complex. O-lan does not fight for her rights. She cleverly nudges her family members into doing things, that change course of each one’s life and as a result, the fortune of the entire family. She wins their love and respect.

The books shows several ills in the Chinese society against women of this era. There are references to wife buying, female infanticide and foot binding among other things. When Wang Lang’s marital life is to begin, his father tells him:

“And what will we do with a pretty woman? We must have a woman who will tend the house and bear children as she works in the fields. A pretty woman will be forever thinking about clothes to go with her pretty face!”

When a female child is born into the family, she is considered “not worth mentioning” and Wang Lang considers that the time of misfortune has started for him. O-Lan is back in the field helping her husband within a few hours of child birth for she thinks, she does not even deserve rest for such a thing as giving birth to a girl. However, when a son is born, in order to ward off evil spirits, O-Lan and Wang Lung pretend thus:

“What a pity our child is a female whom no one could want and covered with smallpox as well! Let us pray it may die.”

Another big theme in the book is the role of earth. What earth is for Wang Lang becomes clear soon after the book begins.

The kitchen was made from earthen bricks as the house was, great squares of earth dug up from their own fields, and thatched with straw from their own wheat. Out of their own earth had his grandfather in his youth fashioned also the oven, baked and black with many years of meal preparing.

When, Wang Lang learns that the house of Hwang’s is growing poor, he does not believe it but when he discoveres they are selling their land, he says:

“Sell their land! Then indeed are they growing poor. Land is one’s flesh and blood.”

When, Wang Lang’s cousin proposes that he sells his land to certain people from the town during the drought when there is no food for anyone to eat, he says

“I shall never sell the land! Bit by bit, I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth.”

If you want to read a book for it’s plot, this is not the book for you. What you might want to read the book for is, Buck’s descriptions of little insignificant details of life in uncommon situations. For example, sights, sounds and smells of a city with abundant food and riches, from the eyes of starved rural people is pure magic. Her descriptions of food make you hungry. Her sentences are easy to read and understand. Yet, they are elegant, beautiful and powerful. If Salman Rushdie is at one end of the specturm with his complex sentences, this is the other end of the spectrum.

This is one of those books that people absolutely love or hate (especially, if it is course work). I do not generally re-read books but I have read this one thrice.

Pearl S Buck won the Nobel Prize, as per Nobel Foundation, “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”. However, some would argue, her depiction of China in the book is not entirely authentic – which might perhaps be true. I am not in a position to comment on that as I never stayed in China, not even visited her. However, Pearl S Buck is a brilliant author and has beautiful things to tell. If you are interested in exploring Pearl S Buck, I recommend Imperial Woman and Dragon Seed. I liked these books better than The Good Earth.

The language of Threads – Gail Tsukiyama

September 11, 2009

The language of threads, a sequel to The women of Silk is the story of Pei, a Chinese woman that escaped to Hong Kong when the Japanese attacked China during World War II. Much like its prequel, the tone of this book is – gentle, quiet and yet intense. This is the second book by Ms Tsukiyama that I’ve read and I can say, I like her writing.

After reaching Hong Kong, with Ji Shen, a 14 year orphan in her custody, Pei finds boarding at the house run by silk sisters. With one of the sister’s help, she also finds work as a domestic help at the house of an affluent Chinese family. She stays with her employers while Ji Shen, her only family in the big city is at the boardinghouse. Ji Shen grudgingly goes to the school much against her own will as Pei wants Ji Shen to be educated and to settle down. Unfortunately, Pei is wrongly accused of stealing a Pearl necklace (actually stolen by the jealous Fong) and is fired from her Job.

Later she lands a Job as a domestic help with Caroline, a British expatriate and a widow. Caroline allows Pei to bring along Ji Shen and the three women go on to build a great bond. The worlds of Pei and Caroline are far apart. The part of the book where Ji Shen and Pei adjust into Caroline’s world is particularly interesting. While Ji Shen enjoys the morning music that Caroline plays and gladly accepts her way of life, Pei takes her time overcoming her fears and learning the differences in expectations from a domestic help in an English household and a Chinese household. The cultural differences allow for the development of a great bond as the three characters learn about each other.

Once the Japanese take over Hong Kong, Ji Shen and Pei are forced to part with Caroline. While Caroline is taken away to a camp by the beach, Ji Shen and Pei are left to look after themselves in the war-torn city. Caroline leaves behind her Jewelery and money for the girls. The girls visit Caroline each month until her last days.

Meanwhile, Pei reunites with a silk sister and her best friend Lin’s brother, who help Pei start up a store that mends clothes – something she learnt from her mother. Pei is very skillful at the art of mending tears, worn out embroidery, etc . She knows ‘the language of threads’. The business flourishes as the war ends.

Ji Shen’s death from delivering a child sets back Pei. She moves on and lives to grow old, and to go back to the silk house many years later, to see the silk house where she grew up working as a young girl, and to later reunite with her blood sister.

I liked this book better than the prequel, The women of silk. The characters in this one, especially Pei’s character is much more developed than it was in the prequel. Pei has multiple threads running in her life – Ji Shen, earning a living, attachment to the long lost friend – Lin, memories of her family, the war, etc. All these bring out a very real character. I find the nature of Pei’s character, especially the strength she shows when facing all the difficulties in a city where she knew no one – very appealing.