Monday, July 10, 2006


Writers are omnipotent. They sit by the brook on sunny afternoons and create bubbles of lives that sway with the wind - every bubble an universe in itself, pregnant with lives twisted and tortured by a greater purpose and responsibility. The writer can then create lives, destroy them, lure the eve with a shining apple or destroy the bubble with a indistinguishable colored pixel. Period.

They could either sweep the rug of reason off your feet and take you to another space and time where their protagonist becomes the center of an ever expanding thriving universe (like how an unassuming ten year old from pivet drive realized his parents were the greatest wizards of all time). Such a premise easily lends itself to drama and larger than life characters (like the man who cannot be named). Or they could show you a seemingly insignificant card and make you a witness while a minor accident sways it and makes it fall. And just as it falls, it kisses another card and takes it along and soon they all fall, an entire castle of cards, kissed with death and a twist of fate. And when the whole castle is in shambles, you have no one to blame but a minor insignificant accident - a woodworm that ate the cross. And a satisfied writer who orchestrated it all.

On a midsummer morning, 13-year-old Briony Tallis watches, from a hidden window, her sister take off her clothes before her father's ward and jump into a fountain. An admittedly unusual incident (aggressive foreplay if it were in a hollywood movie) but not an event that by itself could entwine three lives, destroy them beyond belief and dismember a family. But by the time you are through with Part one of Atonement [Atonement : A Novel - by Ian McEwan], you realize that the lives of those caught in that decisive moment have been irrevocably altered and each of their picture perfect plans for future irrepairably destroyed.

The first part of the novel is a master piece. It paints an upper middle class setting in the early part of twentieth century, overlays it with an entire family of interesting characters. Briony Tallis is looking forward for her brother Leon to return and writes a play as a welcome act, that she plans to stage with the help of her cousins. Her sister Cecilia is spending time at home after her years in Oxford and living with them is Robbie turner, who's on his way to study medicine, after an exceptional year of academics. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one character and hence events are revisited and shown in the different perspective. And it's eventually this difference in perspective - subjectivity of realism - that causes the seemingly insignificant card to sway and fall and take with it the entire castle.

The story could have ended there. But the laws of cause and effect wouldn't have been complete. The unlucky wouldn't have been victimised and erring soul wouldn't have repented. The rest of the book binds the ends and records the atonement of the protagonist. Though the text is exquisite, the imagery detailed, these introspective parts fail to capture the magic of the first act. More so because they do little to advance the story - time goes by slowly as the characters trudge through the walk of life reconciling themselves with here and now and try in their own little ways to mend it. But like the author himself writes, "The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself ... it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception .... However, such writing can become precious when there's no sense of forward movement ... underlying pull of simple narrative".

In the end, time flies. Lives end and plot twists are resolved. The thirteen year old girl reaches the autumn of her life and waits for the witnesses in her prosecution to fade so that she could finally atone for her sin. In a master stroke in the end, the line between the reality as in the book, and those recorded as a work of fiction by the Briorny is forever blurred. And when the final page is flipped, she stares out at the autumn sky and reconciles with herself and her written word.

Atonement is no doubt a work of class. And as with anything with class, it runs the risk of being compared with itself than with its contemporaries. I would have loved to like Atonement a little more. You know that when the last word is said, you don't feel the emptiness that only art could leave you with but in its place a sigh, a shadow of what it could have been. A master piece.

Monday, July 03, 2006

My week long spa

I rarely talk in superlatives. But from where I am, right in the middle of the year, I think this (Jun 25 - Jul 2) is the best week I have had this year. I didn't realize how much I needed this until I was here and have been living through this week long spa. I have been sleeping after midnight, waking up near noon, reading a lot of poetry (Neruda, Shakespeare) and rambling on about nothings and little things that I am taking time now to notice, smile about and write.

I have watched every world cup match this week, followed the Wimbledon, the test series, the SL - ENG series and all local matches that happen next to my house. I am closely following the sensex, buying and selling stocks and laughing about it with my mom every day at three thirty. I am buying VCDs of my favorite movies - from Citizen Kane to Maniratnam favorites. And yeah, I have been talking to mom, sitting and cooking with her, visiting temples with her and cracking jokes only she'll enjoy. Apart from the few calls I got, and ONE sleepless night, work has been the last thing in my mind. Yeah, I could actually go meet a lot more friends who I haven't met in years. But if I weren't so lazy, I would feel a little more guilty :)

I should do this more often, I tell myself. Can one of you please remind me this once I get there? :)

Be the 'Busy' Bee

The best thing about attending a teleconference from home over an STD call is that your mother's left with an impression that her son is a very important cog in the wheel 'back there'.

Long live my manager.

Sports update

Was watching the Asianet news today and here's the sports update verbatim.

Brazil lost to France unexpectedly in the world cup quarter-finals. And Argentina to Germany (blah ... blah). And due to the exit of Brazil and Argentina from the world cup, the residents of the Mallapuram district are very unhappy.

That's it? Well, if the Mallapuram residents (Who?! What?!) are unhappy that Argentina's not in the game, that's it's quite a tragic situation indeed.

Blood brothers

Madras summer + lazy bum + TV - set top box = constant viewing of NDTV profit

So, I actually sat through Mukesh ambani's announcement about his plans in the retail sector. Not that his plans made much sense to me. But it was amusing to watch him bring his mother along obviously to show the world who the real ambani is. If this had happened in the 70s and if the ambanis were as colorful as their money, can't you imagine ...

Anil Ambani : Mere paas gaadi, makaan hai! Reliance info comm hai. Ek naya boring logo hai aur Amitabh bachchan ka ad bhi! Tumhare paas kya hai?

(Dramatic Pause. Beat. Another beat)

Mukesh Ambani : Mere paas Maa hai!

(Plus Reliance petrochemicals, Reliance polymers and a LOT of money. But that's another story). Oh! what a sad joke.

A micro-mini Travelogue

A public transport bus in Chennai any day carries a cross section of the local population. 7:30 on a Sunday evening is admittedly not the best time for people-watching. But the good thing is that you don't have to hang onto a window railing but actually get a place to stand inside the bus.
The action starts right the next moment after you get in. Someone whispers an 'excuse me' into my ears. And before I could turn and ask her how I could be of help, she shoves me into a corner and walks on. 'Excuse me', back home, is not so much a request but more a statutory warning so that you don't turn around and complain that you were never warned. I am a little rustic, out of touch. A bus journey is all it takes to get back in touch :)

I find a place next to the black vertical rod right in the middle of the bus, and stand adjacent to an aged brahmin couple, who like any other aged couple don't have much to say to each other. The richly clad Mrs. Iyer is dressed in a rich peacock green silk sari, has a turmeric-conditioned fair face but dark, wrinkle-free hands. Mr. Iyer is dressed in a light sandal shirt, has a slightly tanned face but fair, wrinkled hands sparsed with long gray hair strands. A symbiotic couple with complementing pairs of hands. I see his hands and tell myself, that he must have been a teacher, or an officer in the bank, a clerk may be. Not one of those who cut their hands in the factory floor. I have seen those hands a lot, like my father's and his friends' - dark nails shrunken inside folds of skin, palms as hard as wood (as my cheeks would know!) and a few scars sitting next to the wrinkles showcasing time that's passed by. Mr. Iyer had one of those palms, that will carry a flushed imprint if you hold the arm rest long enough. Tender as a flower. A lifetime with the pen and the ink.

Behind me, someone's agitated that the conductor is lying. Seems the conductor had a 50 paise coin in his bag but lied to this young man that he didn't have any and thus, 'fooled' him into giving him one. So, the young man wants his 50 paise coin back. The conductor is not sure whether the guy's serious and dismisses him for sometime. The young man however is persistent and is looking around for some support. In matters of social importance (like this 50 paise coin case), men of madras always have an opinion and they believe in it passionately. Surprisingly no one is interested today. One of them symbolically puts on his ear phones and stares out into the dark. After a minute or two, the guy takes out a note book and writes down the number of the vehicle (I really want to know what he's going to complain about). He warns the conductor ominously to wait and watch what will happen tomorrow. Mrs. Iyer looks at me and nods her head dismissively at the young man [Conductor 1. Young man 0]. And when another lady behind me realizes that the young man does not intend to stop his spiel, voices her support for the conductor and is greeted with a lot of ambiguous nods [Conductor 2. Young man 0]. The young man, disheartened by the state of affairs in the city, moves on to the other end of the bus.

I follow him as he walks away and find Ms. Excuse me staring back at me with not the most pleasant of expressions. She probably thinks I am eyeing her. Such vanity, I suffer from! I am probably the last thing on her mind. Korattur arrives and both of them get off the bus. I again want to see where the young man is going [as someone I love would tell me, probably my subconscious motives are something else]. Again, she spots me staring at her and dismisses me with a nod. She'll probably call me names. Or go home and complain about the men of today to her dad or write a blog on guys like me! You can probably click on the next button and check what she's got to say :)

Someone gets up and I get to sit. The familiar green, rugged texture. So many stories, so many people. My trips to school. Uncles and aunts, family friends. Weekend trips with dad. My board exams. An entire life hiding within the folds of a weathered cover. I stare out at the dark and make out all the buildings I can't see, that have been stuck with the stamp of permanence. Probably they'll disappear one day and so will these memories. But for now, they don't. To know they exist is a comfort. I smile to myself, close my eyes and sway with the summer night's wind.

The future does bright after marriage :)

I guess one of the greatest advantages of being married for more than twenty five years is that you can learn the art of predicting the future accurately. Listen to this.

Mom calls up dad in the afternoon and wants him to verify about the warranty plan for a new exhaust fan that they have bought. Dad answers with a succinct yes and ends the call (my dad never believes in ending a call with any form of pleasantries) . My mom puts the phone down and tells me that dad's vehicle in his friend's place. The shop is in the opposite direction away from home. So, there's a very good chance that he would take the vehicle and come straight home and forget all about the warranty. He'll realize it only when she asks him about it. But he'll keep a straight face and tell her that the shop's closed (who's father is he anyway!). A bad liar and a gentleman that he is, he'll either confess that he lied and that he didn't remember till she asked him about it or say something else and get himself into trouble (who's father is he anyway!). All this will happen on Saturday. The shop will be closed on Sunday. He'll be on leave on Monday. Both of them will forget all about it till Wednesday. And if they are lucky remember it before Saturday and get it done.

Guess by now, you already know what really happened. This time when I came, I went and got it done.


My brother and my mom have this unique knack of convincing anyone of the true values of the most unnecessary luxuries they want to enjoy. So about four years ago, my dad (live) and I (over an ISD call) had to go through a whole marketing campaign when we bought a fancy phone with caller ID facility, speaker phone and the works. If you want to dial a number, you press a button that says 'Press' (to state the obvious is one of my family's core virtues) and a little door slowly opens to reveal the numbers. You could of course look at the number you are dialing, find the duration of the call (which is not always a good thing) and let the numbers you have dialed be stored in the history for your mom to keep tabs on who you are talking to.

And like wine, the phone's getting better with age. To foster the spirit of loving and sharing, giving and receiving that's integral to the concept of a family, the phone is now equipped with a feature of broadcasting all your calls right till the end of the kitchen. In other words, the concept of a private conversation has just been thrown out of the brown, cob-webbed window and every call is answered over a speaker!

Such a feature, as you can imagine, can lead to very interesting situations. So one day, one of my really nice uncles who does not often visit us too often landed home without his really nice wife, who for some strange reason, some really nice aunties my mother knows don't really like. So as my mom and dad are reliving past memories in his company, one of these really nice aunties call my mom. And taking the privacy the phone offers for granted, she talks about my really nice uncle's really nice wife in not the kindest of terms. My flummoxed mom, in a stroke of absolute genius and desperation, silently cuts the calls and says a couple of hellos and declares that she's lost her. But the auntie is not only really nice but also very persistent. So, she calls up again and my mom heartlessly cuts her off again. This happens twice or thrice and the auntie finally gets the message that my mom's not really interested in talking to her now. My uncle has his own share of questions. But he's intelligent enough to understand that his questions will be blunted by a obviously uncomfortable lie that will share their company for the rest of the evening. So, they pretend as if nothing happened, save my dad who finds the whole situation extremely amusing and cannot stop smiling.

It's a lot of fun too - when someone like ~C calls up and who as soon as I tell her she's on speaker, confesses that I am the father of her son and that I should come to bangalore right away to attend the parent teachers meeting in the most 70-ish-mere-paas-maa-hai tone much to the amusement of my mom, my neighbor, and the guy who's come down to repair my PC (and guess even the grocery owner a mile away), .

The good thing - according to my mom and dad - is that this way, none of them can have an extra marital affair as there's no privacy, which with both of them in/nearing their fifties is a very pressing concern indeed.

Me write pretty one day

After finding my day painted pink and yellow in my outlook calendar from morn to night for over a year now, I decided to have just a subtle hint of change to my schedule by joining a creative writing workshop happening every weekend. If you are one of those I have personally met in the last month, it's quite possible that I have already bored you with the stories from my sessions. For the others, the workshop plans to teach the craft behind different forms of writing such as prose, poetry, drama and script writing. It's debatable whether it's worth the hefty fee. But there are three things that I am really glad about.

Firstly, I realize what I don't know. The amount of layering that goes into writing something - right from the level of the plot to the level of sound and syllable - is amazing. It's one thing to take the pen and start writing like I am doing now (which is fine for a brain dump like this). But if you want to achieve a desired effort on a focused piece of writing, it helps to know these tools that help you a little more than superhuman intervention or the auspiciousness of the moment.

This also helps you appreciate anything you read a lot more than what you do now. Suddenly, there's a story behind the choice of every word and every alphabet. Which is better than either an inexpressible feeling in your throat in the end, or the famous 13x256 expression (for the uninitiated, it's the expression on your face when you try multiplying 13 and 256 in your head - an expression that, out of personal experience I can tell you, is very useful) when everyone around you finds the whole piece amazing and you don't have a clue why they find it so. [there's an alternate school of thought against dissecting the word to such chemical basics and destroy the hidden, inexpressible charm (like in love) to which too I concur. But again it's good to know and not get addicted to].

Secondly, is the sheer pleasure of being taught literature. What little joys I've missed in my life! To sit in a classroom while someone's teaching you poetry, and is doing it well, is such an amazing feeling. For that moment you are inside a warp, a colorful bubble, with its walls painted with stories, legends, images and emotions. The feeling of being amidst so much life, so much beauty is something you should experience.

Thirdly, is to listen to writers talk. I was reading Hamlet today and the when introducing the play, the writer says, "Whatever the idea was, we now have only the play, and it's so clear that it becomes mysterious. We do not know why he was created or what he means. We simply and amply perceive that he exists", which is usually the case. We would never be able to know the flash of thought, the depth, the story behind a certain word or line. And so many times it will tauntingly stand out, like a hint that you could never solve or completely comprehend. But sitting with half a dozen writers and listening to them explaining their work, you realize the amount of thought that's gone into every piece. And there it's good to be indulgent and to explain the little easter eggs, those hidden metaphors that you have left in your page long masterpiece for someone to find.
Five more weekends, and I still have prose and script writing to go. The only regret I have is that the classes are too few and far in between. I wait for five working days to go back and be a student again. And when it's one on Sunday afternoon, I know I have to wait again. And suddenly, there's this urge to study every form of art I have enjoyed in the past - acting, direction, music. Because I know there's a void, an entire world within a moment where now I see a blur.