lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Double Exposure

How Kaavya Viswanathan Internalised, Apologised and Got Yanked.

The image that comes to my mind is an emoticon. I have a picture of Ms McCafferty folding her arms in a huff and shaking her head in a snit. She will not accept the apology, she will not consider it great publicity for her own books at not extra cost, and she will not stop being miffed. In my mental picture she adds a childish "So there", and stamps her foot.

Popular literature, or what they are calling chick-lit, is by no stretch of imagination a breeding ground for a literary gem which will last long into the future centuries and be quoted and ahem, internalised as Billy the bard has been. We quote Shakespeare without realsiing that we are doing that, so deeply entrenched some of his lines have become in our collective vocabularies. Greek to me. That it should come to this. To thine ownself, be true. Brevity is the soul of wit. Off with his head. There are so many, they have become catchwords.

Chick lit aimed at teenagers is hardly going to be deathless prose. Ms Viswanathan internalised Ms McCafferty and she when she wrote her debut novel that became famous for the advance, she wrote some scenes almost word for word like Ms McCafferty. Hmm. The mind boggles.

Even if publicity claimed that she has been a great reader since age 3, much of what she read couldn't have been great literature. At her age Ms Viswanathan is bound to be influenced and swayed by most of what she reads. She is bound to write like her favourite writers. It is part of the process of finding one's own voice. It is part of evolving as a writer. Ms Viswanathan will be a courageous writer if she manages to write the second novel she has been paid for. It will be a formidable feat.

As someone who published poetry as a teenager myself, I know it is impossible not to be influenced by your favourite authors. But surely a writer strives to find a personal voice, his or her own style? It is perfectly permissible to write about daffodils, they are free, but if you lift lines from Wordsworth, you are a plagiarist, not a poet. Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but copying is theft. Unintentional plagiarism is an oxymoron, as Robert Zelnick says.

I am a great admirer of Terry Pratchett and the Discworld series, and we fans have internalised a lot of Pratchettisms. We talk of headology, we say going bursar or librarian-poo. But if we went about writing novels with Granny Weatherwax- like witches or a city like Ankh-Morpork we would be plagiarists. It is not a franchise universe, and Pratchett is the sole creator/owner of the Discworld.

What is exposed here is not just Ms Viswanathan's internalising the voice of another author, or being forced to apologise. The entire process of book packaging is exposed as a marketing racket. Like Silhouette romances, like Mills & Boon novels, popular books aimed at teenagers and the tweens are an assembly line product, apparently. Someone figures a plot, characters, and a story-line and passes it on to someone else to write. Then someone else edits it, and someone else decides how to market it. It makes the whole business of writing seem cheap and sordid.

If young authors weren't published with such hype and fanfare, they might grow and find their voices. Paolini should have been told to think about his opus, write it again a few years later. But he was published and what could have been a good trilogy turned into bilge. And lets not forget the French girl, Flavia Bujor.

To think that forests are dying in their hectares for fantasies like that and teen-lit and chick-lit.

And Ms McCafferty is not satisfied with the public uproar and the apology. Oh dear, oh dear.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Above rubies

Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. Proverbs 31.10

Perhaps that's why men patronise the" ladies of negotiable affection" who trade in" reasonably priced love." A good woman comes with large price tag; for a virtuous woman that doubles.

That price is love and commitment. Yes. The C word.

Virtue, dear reader, is not ever, ought never to be equated with virginity. Virtue in the biblical sense is something entirely different. Indeed, virtue means righteous living rather than confessing your amorous escapades to your priest as a matter of weekly repentance.

Folks who belong to the religion have a lovely set of vows to take in front of a congregation assembled to celebrate the wedding of a willing couple. The congregation also serves as witness for the vows exchanged.

Such vows!

With this ring I thee wed, all my love I do thee give; with all my worldly goods I thee endow, with my body I thee worship; to love, honour and cherish; forsaking all others and holding only to one.

Promising all this in front of an audience is binding. You also promise the marriage is forever. You promise that you are united in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for better or worse until death do you apart. No wanting out when the going gets tough. Commitment of this kind with witnesses tends to have more weight than a registered marriage in a civil ceremony.

Think about it. In Hindu marriages, and I shudder to think that you will immediately think HAHK( it is not representative of rituals elsewhere in India), the promise and commitment is a great deal higher.

The seven steps a bridegroom guides his bride around the altar are clearly expressed hopes for food, strength, piety, progeny, wealth, comfort and health. To be striven for and savoured as they come.

High maintenance or not, a woman who promises to be there for you through and through will be worth the investment, whether in rubies (opals in my case , I am a sucker for opals) or equivalent worldly goods.

I have been musing about the C word, as several of my young friends have been venting at me, both for against it. A young man admires the commitment of a girl to her boyfriend, a young woman ranting at the balking of her guy to state his intentions clearly, a friend contemplating walking out of a marriage where love has died... I don't have pearls of wisdom for any of them, but I can listen and think.

As a woman with a couple of decades of wedded bliss under her belt, I want to say commitment to a relationship is a sacred thing. For me, at least. If a girl is committed to her guy, she should not send out signals of interest to others. If a guy doesn't want the whole package, he ought to make his intentions clear. If a marriage has gone stale, both partners should work to liven it up again. You have all invested time, energy and emotion into it so far, so why quit now?

Silly old me, I believe in the vows. I believe a promise once made should be kept.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Invisible people

I stare resolutely ahead, willing the signal to change so the cab can move on. The persistent rapping on the window and the whine go on.

"I see you here every day", I silently tell the woman. "I see you living on the pavement, arguing with other pavement dwellers, bantering with them, cooking your meals on makeshift stoves. I see you everyday, begging at the signals. I see you, I know your life, as much as can be deduced watching from the window of a cab.

"Sometimes, you borrow a child from other women and tell me that the baby is hungry and you can't feed it. I know it is not your baby, because I've seen another woman feeding it just the other day. I see your man working the other lane of traffic, I know he is your man. Why don't you sell something or wipe the windshield and ask for a tip instead of whining that god will be good to me if I gave you alms?"

It is more than embarrassment or discomfiture. What I feel when beggars accost me at traffic lights is impotent fury. I see them every day, they beg from me every day; I know their faces but I am invisible.

It is the same with the scamsters. I see them every day too. They come up to the cars and speak with great urgency. There was a dreadful accident, there is an injured child or woman who needs to be taken to a hospital, can you help? Or somebody needs to buy blood, they say, waving a scrap of official looking pink slip. Day after day, at the same place. I suppose they demarcate their pitches and their share of the traffic. But don't they realise that people commute and that means they are regulars on that route, too? If I were running the accident scam, I'd surely not frequent the same crossing two days running.

Then there are the hesitant ones that come up and whisper that they recently lost their jobs, they are not begging, not really, but they need help. There's the 'I am new to the city, and I was robbed' spiel .

All at the same place, day after day.

One day, perhaps I will say those words aloud to that woman. One day, perhaps the people in the traffic will change from prospects and become real to her. One day, perhaps I won't be invisible to that woman who begs at the traffic lights.


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Pleasures of summer

There was a lovely thunderstorm last evening. I like nor'westers. The rushing wind, the light-show in the sky, the peal of thunder... They all exhilarate me. Though we rush around closing windows so dust and rain don't blow in, I like to stand in the balcony and let the slanting sheets of rain lash me. After the build-up of heat for days and days, the storm feels like a blessing.

Though I have seen the dust storms of Delhi, I like the storms of Calcutta better. Looking forward to a storm is one of the pleasures of summer for me. My first summer in Calcutta was a revelation. I discovered the kalbaishaki. Here is a poem I wrote about it. Before anyone sniggers about the title, I wrote it before Arundhati Roy published her novel. So there. :D

May in Calcutta

the city in heat
afire beneath a canopy of green
red russet rust yellow and lilac,
and an occasional golden shower of laburnum;
the city burns.
the smoldering sweltering
sweating heat
working up to a fever pitch
until the nor'wester arrives conquering

nipples hardening in the sudden cool breezes,
skin tingling with a new wet heat,
gales breathe caresses on fevered skin
and lightning-fingers pluck nerves
stretched taut;
thunder gasps in quickening clasps
and Calcutta comes.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Kabhi mere saath koyi raat guzaar...

I must be the only woman in the country who hasn't heard it until then.

I must confess that the only time I listen to popular music is when I am in a taxi and the cabbie plays FM.

I was getting a pedicure. There was music in the background. My salon's music is varied but this was the first time I heard the song. That's a nice tune, I remarked as it came to an end. My pedicurist obligingly played it again, raising the volume. I listened again, catching more than the lilting tune and the haunting refrain this time.

What a sensual song!

I remarked that it seemed vaguely middle eastern. My stylist, who was even more obliging, played it again. And told me that the tune was lifted. You saw the flick, he asked as he snipped away. I admitted that I don't see films much. He seemed disbelieving. So I told him that I had seen three films in the last fifteen years. He looked at me pityingly.

But it's a nice song, I said. So he played it again.

Yesterday, I went to get my hair done. My stylist greeted me, turned to his assistant and said, play ma'am's song.

Good grief!

But the song is nice, so I listened to it again. I wish I can get the tune out of my head now.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I never saw a poem as lovely as a tree

Lady Luck and I are definitely not on talking terms, that is clear. What ought to have taken four days took a week; but Dear Reader, I'm back.

Ever considered a tree? Ever looked at a tree? How many trees are real trees in our cities?

Come on, don't laugh. Think about it. Can you think of a real tree you saw? A tree that hasn't been shaped by human intervention by way of lopping off branches to suit human convenience? Every tree in a city is a victim of human whims.

Have you seen a tree all grown as weather, climate and nature shaped it?

You think a journey on a train gets you the treat of watching the countryside? Well, it does, but that countryside is full of trees made to follow the needs of mankind. Everywhere the tracks have been laid, there has been unreported and unremarked-upon rape of trees.

You will never find a real tree along any railway tracks: they all have been tailored to suit our convenience. It is the same whether your train powers out of large towns or mega-cities or small villages. You won't find a real tree in human habitations, ever. It'd have been shaped by humans, to suit themselves.

Humans seem incapable of letting vegetation be. A tree that grows on its own can be a breathtakingly beautiful thing. But we chop branches that block our light or may tangle with our electric cables; we hack away, leaving unsightly stubs and we make urban or rural trees ugly to suit us.

Southern Avenue in my city has grown hotter in summer in the last decade, thanks to the thoughtless chopping off of limbs to allow street-lights to shine through. Every year, and I swear, every year they "trim" branches of trees. Soon enough, there is no tree. It has been blown down by a nor'wester. There seems to be no basic understanding of ecological needs and principles. The branches they hack off so heedlessly take the tree decades to grow to that size. (I won't even begin about the brainless felling of trees to make room for a swimming pool or how shade, shelter and traffic safety were sacrificed for that monstrosity.)

Perhaps if it is put across as a quid pro quo , the politicians may realise the issue is bigger than constituencies or vote banks. It is more vital; we all need to breathe, after all. Whichever coterie is currently in charge has to realise that trees are important as lungs to cities. More than that, we need the trees to provide shade and some insulation from weather.

We read that Ashoka and Akbar planted thousands of trees. They did it for travellers; they did it to provide a green canopy that counters urban heat islands that cities and civilisations tend to generate. Trees absorb pollution, carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen that sustains us. A well-established tree cover can reduce peak summer temperatures in cities by some six degrees. Surely that is desirable?

Trees regulate temperature, bind the soil, give us shade and help us breathe. Cut down too many of them and your city will swelter, your citizens will wheeze, your streets will sizzle in the shadeless and breathless heat of summers. Simple enough? But civic authorities don't understand this, or if they do, they still won't stop the illegal tree-felling and timber trade.

Folly follows folly.

There used to be a huge traffic island at the Golpark end of Southern Avenue, and some lovely by city standards trees on it. They built a fly-over in Gariahat, and to cope with the bottlenecks it generated they shrank the traffic island to a third of its original size. They chopped off the trees, leaving one single sorry specimen to stand alone. They widened the Avenue by, guess what, cutting down trees. Now each summer storm claims a tree or two on the Avenue, and the monsoons harvest more trees weakened by indiscriminate digging and breaking of their roots.

Oh, they claim they planted a tree for every tree that was felled in creating the new island. They claim they have beautified the island. Piffle.

If you plant saplings in what are essentially flowerpot sized holes in concrete, it doesn't take genius to realise the sapling won't survive. A tree's rootballs need more soil than that. As a sapling grows, it requires soil to expand its roots, not concrete and bricks.

If you chop down trees and plant ornamental shrubs and a lawn, they don't miraculously bring back the shade you took away. The whole area shimmers in heat haze in summers now. Beautification doesn't serve people who have to use the streets. They would prefer shade and some relief from the sun.

Instead of dismissing these concerns as rabid green overkill, civic authorities ought to consider the benefits. But they won't. Because they know best.

I saw trees unmolested by humanity in Chitwan, Nepal. A tree that grew as nature and climate, locus and time shaped it is an awesome thing to behold. I admired real trees as I trekked to see wildlife. But near the lodge I was staying the trees were again subjugated to human convenience. Humanity strikes again.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A small goodbye

Folks, those of you who are in the know don't need the explanation.

I am surrendering our den with its shelves of books, music system and our computers. The platoon of painters will take over the territory tomorrow and I have to disconnect from the world for the nonce.

I hope to get back in conversation with you all in a few days; just four if I am lucky. But, hey, you know the Lady and I are not on talking terms. Let's see. And most of you know how you can keep in touch, regardless of my being disconnected with the world wide web.

*severely* I will definitely be keeping tabs. :D

Take care, folks. And keep in touch. Do keep visiting; who knows, miracles are known to occur.

Here is a nice clue I have been saving up for you unappreciative lot:

Being the explanation of the decimal system in EEC reform (9)

Solution: Existence. Being: that is the definition. X is ten, which is the decimal system; inside a tossed around EEC. Voila!

So long, folks. I am disconnecting now.

Be good. If you can't be good, then be careful.


The stud / slut paradox

After food and shelter, procreation and passing one's genes on to posterity seems to occupy the minds of all living things.

But the animal kingdom has it easy. Take rabbits for instance: it is 'Go, Sow, Thank you, Doe'. No angst and arguments about morality.

Humans tend to agonise about sex.

Young people worry about shedding their virginity and the aftermath. Older generation worry about diminishing excitement, about marriages settling into comfortable grooves of co-existence and losing the heady romance of the initial years. The still older generation, fifty plus people, worry about waning libido and fading charms. Unmarried people worry about lack of active and regular sex-life; married people worry if they are missing out.

Everybody and her aunt agonises about sex. And then there's gender politics.

There is a curious disparity in how we have come to see the same behaviour with two different parameters. If a man has slept with x number of women, he is a stud. If a woman has slept with the same number of men or even less, she is a slut.

How come?

It is curious how things seem to come in flux. It was only some months ago I was discussing this with a friend; now I find rimi talking about it, and in more detail here . It is the same old story, but I am beginning to wonder how this morality of a woman being faithful for life and a man being free to distribute his genes came about in our Kamasutra land.

As far as I can figure out from the classics, India had never been a land that suppressed its sexual appetites. Sex as a taboo subject and sexuality as something to be slightly ashamed of and embarrassed about... This attitude has come to us from the years of being a British colony. The poets tell us that we celebrated our sexuality lustily and with not much censure or outrage.

But the attitudes nowadays seem to veer from one extreme to another. Poor Khushboo. She only stated the obvious. I wish she advocated safe sex a bit more. In for a penny, in for a pound, after all. :D

When I was young and wild, there was no specter of AIDS, but caution and prudence always played a part in how my circle of friends dealt with intimacy.

People do have sex, and procreate. It is a biological imperative. But social norms change. People have casual sex these days, without any strings attached or any commitment towards a long-term relationship.

But if a man is indulgently allowed to sow his wild oats, why frown upon the fields that got sown? If being sexually active before entering a longish or life-long relationship is acceptable for a man, why is a woman who does the same considered depraved and cheap?

Folks, I was going to talk more about this, but circumstances intervene, and I will be disconnected for a few days. So mull this paradox, and let me know. You too, rimi. You Bubbly, you. :D

To be continued.


Monday, April 10, 2006

Fashion? But it's just clothes!

Life was definitely simpler for our grandmothers. They wore sarees and that was that. In the north, maybe they wore salwar suits, but that was that too. Or was it?


My grandma probably fretted about the weaves and patterns and my mother fretted about fashionable colours. But they only had to worry about fashion trends in blouses, surely? Whether the sleeves were long or short, whether to add lacy flounces or bows, whether the blouses buttoned up behind or at the front was the most they worried about trends.

Now there are fashionable and popular designers from our own country. But do they measure up to the standards of impractical designs that their Western counterparts churn out? Absolutely! We even have our own wardrobe malfunctions! Nobody can call us backward. :D

Whether they are publicity stunts or they are bad designs and worse execution in tailoring, the clothes that are paraded in these fashion shows make no sense to me. Who in their right senses will wear the kind of clothes that are strutted on the catwalk in everyday life? (don't, oh please, don't let me get started on Sabyasachi) The clothes aren't practical, they are not even appealing or attractive. The designers seem to think of only clothes-horses and not ordinary people when they create these marvels; which turn out to be badly tailored and which embarrass the person who is trying to model them.

I simply commiserate with Carol Gracias. Apparently she asked the designer to take care of slippage during the fittings; and was ignored. So now she is the goddess of a million MMS clips. Poor girl.

When I was a young, fashion was a lot simpler.

If Dimple wore her blouse knotted, so did a generation of teenagers, to the consternation of their parents. If Zeenat wore her hair short, ditto, ditto. Now girls wear a dozen ear-rings and a nose-ring just like Sania Mirza.

(I remember wearing bell-bottoms in shocking pink with a parrot-green bat-sleeved embroidered top and feeling gorgeous and trendy. Ah, how time flies. Now I'd give both the hues a miss and would probably shudder to see the combination.)

Clothes seem to get skimpier and skimpier in magazine photo-spreads. A couple of hankies with sequins and a few shoe-laces seem to be enough to spark off creativity in our designers. Real life population doesn't dress like that. Young people seem to live in jeans and cropped tops.

But what I see around the city, young girls in tight t-shirts that barely skim the hips and jeans that seem painted on doesn't really bother me much. Fashion changes, and skirts that seem hang below the pelvic bones on the strength of a prayer will surely raise to waist level sooner or later.

All our clothes- blouses or salwar sets, or skirts and dresses, used to be tailored. Buying ready made clothes was considered de classe. The best thing about tailored clothes was they were made for you, so they fitted well. Of course, if they looked good or not depended on your taste and choice of style.

I wonder if anybody goes to the trouble of getting an outfit made from the scratch nowadays. Selecting the fabric, print and style; discussing what embellishments you want with your tailor; getting fittings, making alterations... Who will go to such trouble if you can get well-made clothes, all ready to wear?

I was never a fashion slave. I never had time for it. My mother did it all anyway. She loved choosing fabrics, deciding designs and she positively revelled in buying sarees. I dressed in the first thing that came to hand from my wardrobe, and that was about all I had to do. My mother did the shopping, my sisters researched fashion, and I wore whatever was there.

When I lived in Delhi, I used to buy bargains from Janpath pavements and wear them for years. Clothes just didn't mean much, except as a necessity. I still tend to live in jeans that are a decade old and still going strong. As I avoid social gatherings, I never need to dress up or fret that I don't have a thing to wear. I don't have a thing to wear for a classy evening out, anyway. :D

I am musing about fashions and clothes as I had to turn out my cupboards in preparation to handing over my bedroom to the painters. As I see the piles of salwar suits I had grown tired of, sarees I haven't worn in decades, I wonder what to do with them. Just throw them out? Cut them up and make a patchwork quilt? Recycle them as dishrags? Send them to charities?

Any suggestions?


Friday, April 07, 2006

You can call me madam, young man! Part II

The more I muse about manners and addressing people, the more befuddled I get; along with picking up a truck-load of observations.

None of my female friends, whatever their age, have a problem calling me by my name. Whether it is the banker girl or the Wonder Girl whose only problem seems to be her obsession with Harry Potter, whether it is another retired poet or a young man seeking to change his gender; they all address me by my name and they don't seem to have gone through agonising protocol/etiquette rationale to arrive there.

My young friend, that brilliant kid, shocks her granny every time we talk. 'She is an older person; don't address her by name. Don't be so argumentative'. I hear the background outrage each time when she says 'Lalita' and talks to me, arguing about things we have in common.

Personally, I'd rather be Lalita to somebody who chats with me, picks my brains, nags at me, keeps me abreast of news in Harry Potter Land, and more, than be 'Auntie', or Missus Em to somebody who can't string two sentences together without the aid of Wren & Martin or somebody who is polite and politically correct and totally devoid of opinions.

But there are emerging trends, folks.

Girls use my name, and so do most friends from overseas. Friends in the northern part of the subcontinent have no problem using my name and being familiar. It is the young men from South India who befriended me who have trouble with overcoming their upbringing and conditioning enough to address me by name.

Oh, they are raucous in dissent and trenchant in their opinions, they are contemptuous in their judgments and scornful at my typing speed and obsession about avoiding typos ; but they can't bring themselves to address me in the familiar 'you' which is a distinctly different thing from a formal 'thou'.

In a spirit of enquiry, I asked some of them why.

Respect towards elders that seems to have been bred in the bones. That is why.

They have called me an utter romantic fool, a clue-less misfit; they can and do make disparaging remarks and they ask if I carry a certificate to be included into the species homo sapiens. They call me names, but they won't address me by name.

Go figure. :D


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What's in a name?

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet...

No, I am not going to blog about Shakespeare, I was just musing about names and meanings.

I thought we had a wonderful name for our dog, named after the celestial hound in Japanese mythology. My mother preferred to call her Silk Smita, because she was so seductive and flirtatious; (my dog, that is. Not Silk Smita, though I must admit there was a voluptuous woman.) and because my dog's name came close to offending Telugu ears and sensibilities.

Would-be parents devote a lot of time and thought to naming their offspring. The child would be saddled with it life-long, after all.

A name after some attribute can be fraught with danger of contradiction.

What if a Lata turned out to be plump, or a Visalakshi a slit-eyed maiden?

Concepts and adjectives aren't without risk, either.

What if Vijay failed at every venture or Abhay turned out timid? A Satya could be mendacious, a Subhashini could have a stutter. Take me, for instance. I am not what my name suggests, at all. :D

Mostly parents used to name their children after family gods or mythological characters.

Even here, there are pitfalls. Naming a daughter Sita could invite the travails of the namesake. You can't saddle a girl with the name Damayanti, in case she gets deserted by her husband, too. Call her Ahalya and risk her falling into adultery? And forget about Draupadi.

And some aspects of the gods and goddesses just won't do. It's not often you find a Kalika or a Chandika. You can't have a Kalabhairav or Yama.

You didn't name girls after celestial maidens either; before the advent of Rambhas, Menakas and Oorvasis in the film industry, that is. They were of easy virtue, after all. Likewise, you don't name boys Suyodhana or Karna or after the other baddies of the classics.

It used to be thought naming girls after rivers was bad luck. (This must be true, I read it in an ancient treatise about auspicious names, the Kamasutra. :D)

Naming a child used to be a major event, with all the relatives pitching in with suggestions. Family priests would cast the horoscope of the new-born and determine the first syllable of an auspicious name which would bring the baby the best luck.

Andhra used to abound with Venkataramanas, and V V S S Raos were all over the place.

But like with everything else, there were fads in naming children too. In the fervour of the Freedom struggle, there were children named after the leaders. You found Tilaks and Boses in Andhra, never mind these were surnames of the leaders.

There were a whole generation of Indiras. When Indira named her children, most of the nation named their offspring the same names, too. When they in turn had children and named them, the nation followed suit.

From naming children after gods and goddesses, the trend shifted to exotic names; elegant and dainty names. Madhulika, Mrinalini; Niharika, or Avanti. Boys got named after Gautama Buddha than gods. Parthasarathi fell out of favour and Arjun was preferred.

All these names have meanings or associations that conjure up the right image. I have problem with some of the modern names that are current though. What on earth does Neha mean? Sneha is friendship and lamp oil in Sanskrit, the mother of most Indian languages. So does Neha mean lifeless, friendless since the negative start seems to suggest it? Or does it mean moisture, as in Niharika, which is a moisture bearing cloudlet?

Naming children after heroes is all well and good, but Bengalis do it differently from the rest of the nation. Only in Bengal do you find people named after anti-heroes. Oh, Karunanidhi named his son Stalin, and the poet Sri Sri named his daughter Lenina, but in Bengal you will find Indrajits, Rumas, Sharmishtas and Devayanis. Oh, and Othellos too.

In a way, this perhaps suggests that Bengalis have a greater grasp of the nuances of the characters, or that they know their classics and mythology better than the rest of the country. Or does it?

Indrajit was a great ascetic and a warrior of repute. Vaali was a good king, too. Akshakumar was a fearsome warrior. But they were all on the losing side.

But Vibishana was the original Quisling. Nobody names their children after him, not even in Bengal. Though Bhishma is admired and boys do get named Devavrata.

But Ruma? Devayani? Sharmistha? Ruma was Sugriva's wife, then Vaali's and then Sugriva's wife again. Devayani was a vindictive and selfish spoilt brat, and Sharmistha was a princess who became a maid.

Only Bengalis seem to think these are names to bestow upon their girl children.


Monday, April 03, 2006

Pride goeth before destruction...

Almost arhythmic songsters (7)

I laughed myself nearly sick when I read that clue. The answer is Beatles, of course.

I gleefully mailed that clue to my buddies. "But that's slander," choked a friend, not just because he gets cross-eyed at the mention of crosswords. In vain, I tried to explain that nearly arhythmic is a clue, to the definition: songsters. Beat-less, with one less s. He still thought it was slander. I said, no it is just crosswords.

That same crossword held other gems, including a 35 letter long clue, whose solution was Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Themed crosswords are either dead easy or impossible. I cracked a Guardian Genius crossword once because Paul kindly used three 15 letters clues, all linked:

10's Persistent demands... (5,5,5) For rewards... (5,5,5) Enthusiastically accepted! (1,2,1,2,12,1,2,1,2) 10 was Father of the palindrome (4)

I solved 'enthusiastically accepted' right away, it's a no-brainer. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

So the others were clearly Gimme, gimme, gimme and Money, money, money.

Father of the palindrome is, needless to say, ABBA. :D

Last month's Genius crossword by Bunthorne was themed, too. It listed all the ingredients for a Bloody Mary. Brummie once shuffled the definitions and clues, so you had to solve the clues and match the definitions before you can enter them in the grid.

Alphabetical jig-saws are fun. Each solution starting with a letter of the alphabet, including x, y and z.

Apple inserted into orange possibly, within 10 feet (9) 10 here is X; an anagram of orange, followed by Ft for feet. Voila! Xenograft.

I think I grew complacent, having solved the last five Genius puzzles fairly quickly, Bunthorne's in less than 2 hours. Weekly prize puzzles were getting to be a doddle, too.

So today, the first Monday of the month, I checked out this month's Genius puzzle. It is by Araucaria, whom I love. There are almost always special instructions for these puzzles, so I didn't pay it much mind. I just took a print out, so I could solve it in the evening.

My heart sank as I read the instructions, though. Read for yourselves:

Special instructions: 17 is normal. 1, 6, 8, 9, 15, 19 and 23 across are of a kind and have incomplete clues. With the rest, each half of the clue belongs to a solution of the same length to be entered at a different place: thus, 2's clue refers half to 23 down and half to 25, none of it to 2 itself(except the number in brackets)

Solve it in the evening? It is going to take me many evenings of frustration to get anywhere with this one.

Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Affair, anybody?

There are affairs and affairs.

There are the torrid impetuous variety which happen because your common sense was on vacation and forgot to inform you. And then there are life-long affairs you have with a hobby.

My own affair is with reading. I don't know when I started to read, or if I was taught formally in the 'a aa, e ee, u oo' fashion, but most memories of my childhood involve scrabbling for a book or a magazine. "I first!" was the triumphant, if ungrammatical cry we siblings warbled as we grabbed new reading material.

Chandamama, Balamitra and whatever weeklies that were in their heyday were the staples. There were a lot of Telugu magazines to read in those days. My father received complimentary copies whenever he published; and my mother because she combined being an agony aunt and being proto-yellow pages in a question-answer column: there were always magazines to read.

And always, there was my father's library.

Reading was as essential as breathing in my family, then. I used to read the new text-books at the beginning of each year, never bothering to open them again during the year.

Enid Blyton was discovered, hand in hand with the virtues of waiting and self-denial.

All my pocket-money went into buying Enid Blyton novels. I never had money to buy chips or chocolates, hence I avoided all the adolescent acne angst. Delayed gratification wasn't a phrase coined then, but I knew all about it when I saved all my money and went weekly to the City Book Shop in Pondy Bazaar to buy whichever title I had my eye on.

Though I continued to read Telugu literature, Denise Robbins, Barbara Cartland, Lucy Walker and Georgette Heyer were soon part of my must read authors list.

I remember reading a Lucy Walker novel in school, when my teacher confiscated the book. I raged mutely at the injustice of it, as I had finished whatever assignment we were set before dipping into the book. Two days later, the book was sent home to my mother; it turned out my teacher hadn't read that one, so she pulled rank and grabbed it. :D

These novels were all part of my mother's reading material, but I was exhausting the readable books in my father's library. He had hundreds, yes, but I wasn't desperate to read linguistics theories and archaeological survey reports. And you can't read classics continuously.

Buying books is an expensive hobby, and occasional presents of books were rare events. The blatant plagiarism by cinema producers came in useful here, as my father was regularly given such books to see if the plot could be adapted for a film.

Then I discovered lending libraries. Madras had a profusion of them, each famous in its locality. I became a member of Pastime, which was small and friendly. Gyan, who ran it, used to repair watches and clocks as a hobby and soon became a dear friend as well as book-lender. We'd chat for hours, sipping tea and watching the world go by; and he'd recommend books, fish out the new ones that he kept stashed in one of the drawers of his desk for favoured customers. But Gyan's collection wasn't enough to satisfy my hunger for the genre I discovered there. Horror.

I started patronising Raviraj lending library, two storeys crammed with somewhat tattered books of so many genres. Westerns, mysteries, romances... Raviraj had them all. My one criterion in choosing the libraries was their proximity. They had to be within walking distance, so I needn't waste some of my precious allowance on bus fares.

Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase, Modesty Blaise books, Nick Carter books, Bond books, Lois L'amour, J T Edson, horror novels, science fiction... That library was my slice of paradise. My sisters read Mills & Boon romances, but I steadily moved away from romances toward science fiction and other stuff.

When I moved to Delhi, I suffered withdrawal symptoms. There were no lending libraries! How do I get my weekly dose of popular fiction? It seemed a rare habit to read in Delhi.

There was a small book-shop in Hauz Khas where we lived, and I discovered that they lent books. But it wasn't the same as the cramped and crammed-full of shelves ambience that Raviraj had and the shelves weren't exactly stuffed to overflowing either.

I took to buying books from Janpath kiosks, where you could buy any book for 10 Rupees. Most of my science fiction collection was bought from Janpath.

When we moved to Calcutta, my inner reader was prepared and primed. As soon as we settled in, I went on a hunt for bookshops and lending libraries. Calcutta was a revelation, though. The second-hand books sold on Golpark pavements were cheap. Then I joined Orchid, a lending library in the area. I had my steady diet of fiction and was set, somewhat.

Orchid's owner knew books, but couldn't afford to cater to superior tastes. If I wanted to read romances and bonk-busters and chick-lit, his library was a good source. Ditto for bestsellers and thrillers. But other than a cursory nod at classics, which I mostly had read already, his offerings were not eclectic enough for me.

But still, beggars can't be choosers. We had a routine of a monthly visit to Oxford Bookstore, and I did used to borrow from their library in my early years in Calcutta. But the distance factor figured largely.

And then came Eloor to Calcutta. Only a few ads in print, no fanfare. But, oh wow!

My neighbour's boy brought it to my attention. In '98, I was reeling with the twin pangs of losing my father and losing my child to boarding school. And Eloor when I visited it, provided the best solace: books; as many as I could borrow.

It had strange principles and rules, this library did. 10% of the book price was the reading fee. But hey, that works out cheap in the long run. And did it have variety. Hoo boy!

Whether I felt philosophical or in the mood for comics, whether I wanted to read religion or romance, whether I wanted self-help manuals or Indian writers in English, whether I felt like going back to Enid Blyton and William books or young-adult literature, this library had them all!

Housed in four rooms and a corridor of shelves, Eloor seemed to have it all. I found my slice of paradise again.

But for me, the best thing that happened in my reading life was having to get an e-mail address so that the man who owned the business could write to me and request me to come aboard as a buying advisor. :D

I am a certified reader now.


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