Thirty Dates in Thirty Days

Wake up. Wash hands. Cook food. Wash hands. Finish editing the article. Wash hands. Eat. Wash hands. Webstream and chill. Wash hands. Eat. Wash hands. Scroll down the news feed. Read. Wash hands. Off to bed. Wake up. Repeat. One day was rolling into another, an endless loop with nothing except sundown and sunrise to mark the fact that the date had changed. The day I picked up my phone to check whether the day was Sunday or Monday, I realized something had to give. I had to break this infinite loop before it started feeling like a noose tightening around me.

I needed help, and so I turned to my oldest and most trusted friends – stories. Stories have always been my portal to different times, different spaces. They’ve been the most stress-free way to make new acquaintances, some who became lifelong friends with permanent spots on my bookshelves and some from whom I grew apart, and they moved on. Continuing with the next one on my 2020 reading list did not feel right. Nothing in 2020 was going as per plan, so why should my reading plan be spared!

 

The thing with the lockdown and this pandemic is that there is no missing endpoint. No one, not scientists, doctors, experts… no one can do anything more than shrug when asked – when will this end? What we are hoping for is a single word answer, what we get is a thesis filled with data, ifs and buts, and before they get into the appendices, we have tuned off. This lack of an end in sight is unnerving. That’s what my loopy routine needed – a way to mark the end of the day and something new to look forward to the next day. Stories in long-form would not fall in line with this plan. Maybe, short stories? Novellas? And then it struck me – a new acquaintance every day and perhaps to reacquaint with a few who have been sitting around gaining wrinkles.

 

I start at a happy place – a childhood favourite, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. Rereading it after almost three decades, I realize that this time around I catch the parable that the writer has whispered between the lines. I sleep happy that night. Next on the cards are short stories by Philip Roth who had left quite an impression on me last year with his Goodbye, Columbus. The short stories I pick focus on the theme of religion and tolerance without being overbearing. Another childhood favourite Astrid Lindgreen’s Pippi Longstocking sweeps me up in nostalgia. Next, I mix things up with reading a play script, something which I usually do with a group of friends. But, hey friends have dehydrated into pings on the phone and boxes on the computer screen! I pick a long overdue read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, a play layered with social and individual tension.

 

Ibsen’s comment on society nudges me in the direction of Saadat Manto’s short stories. Manto once defended the theme in his writing with these words – “If you cannot bear these stories, then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society which itself is naked.” After a quick hey-ho to Herman Melville in the 19th century, a ping on the phone pulls me back to the present. It is India’s favourite cartoonist R K Laxman’s The Best of Laxman, one of the many freebies that are appearing in our realms to help make the lock-in bearable. Another play, this time British dramatist Willy Russell’s One For the Road drives home the point that tragedy when cloaked with comedy hits hard. As I ponder over my next day’s read, a thin spine catches my eye. The cover is a sage green that time has muted down – Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. A gift, it has sat in the shadows of the tomes around it for half a decade. Yeats, in his introduction, says Tagore’s ‘songs brought out a world that he had always dreamed of.‘ As I read on, I echo this feeling. My tenth date on the tenth day is with British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing. The author’s ability to spot stories in the ordinary through her observation of the vagaries of human behaviour strikes a chord. It’s the kind of writer I hope to become. Ten days of reading a different author each day has added a beat to the hum and drum.

 

 

Next, I pick a modern romance Edan Lepucki’s If You’re Not Yet Like Me. A far cry from the teeth-decaying sweet romances I grew up, the writer’s choice of backing a flawed protagonist makes it relatable. I follow it up with Punch Goes Abroad, a compilation of travel articles that initially featured in Punch Magazine. It is speed dating at its best as Miles Kington, Julian Barnes, and a few others do their best to woo me. Day 13 introduces me to a new name, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose stories lead me to a world I know nothing of and hold me trapped there much after the stories end. From new introductions to the always-and-forever, Ernest Hemingway with A Big two Hearted River and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The next day brings home The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitsgerald, which carries some shades of Gatsby.

 

 

A tweet alerts me to a new author, Norwegian Joe Fosse. His novella And Then My Dog Will Come Back To Me starts with an innocuous event but soon takes hairpin bend twists and turns. Or does it? The doubts persist though the tale ends. The next few days are what become, by chance not decision, my classic phase. I read Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain,  William Faulkner and Jack London. The only interruption is Bernard Pomerance’s brilliantly conceived play The Elephant Man, which is read out loud over a Zoom call with a group of fellow readers and followed by a spirited discussion.  The classic phase is followed by some contemporary geniuses Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes and another eternal love Haruki Murakami’s The Folklore of Our Times.

 

 

A week away from a month of reading a different author every day, and it occurs to me that I have neglected contemporary Indian writers. V S Naipaul‘s Indian origin gets him a foot through the door and his short stories in A Flag on the Island paint a vivid picture of life on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. From the Caribbean, it is a quick flight back home to Mumbai. Rohinton Mistry’s Firozsha Baug acquaints the reader with life in the Parsi colonies that dot the city. Another Indian writer on my list is Satyajit Ray with his short story Bonku Babu’s Friend. True to his style, the writer uses a straightforward narrative to hold a mirror before us that compels us to examine ourselves, uncomfortable as it may be. Another neglected group on my list is women writers, and with month-end looming close, I turn to two celebrated women. Virginia Woolf’s short stories The Mark on the Wall and Kew Gardens are in her characteristic stream of consciousness style. Her ability to stretch and collapse moments is astounding. She is followed by Alice Munro with The Bear That Came Over The Mountain which redefines love when seen through a more pragmatic lens. It’s day 30, and the recommendation has come from the great Murakami, a name that made an appearance in his short story Kenzaburo Oe. His Aghwee, the Sky Monster delves into the theme of mental disorder with a subtlety that is befitting of the point of view character. I am enamoured, and I see the merit in exploring a longer relationship with Oe.

 

 

What next? Perhaps, a new reading goal. For now though I am revelling in the many moments that these stories created in the last thirty days. If it weren’t for them, the days would have connected together in a flatline, and that is no way to live.

Illustrations Himali Kothari


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Of Toy Trains and Tunnels – Kalka To Shimla

Growing up in pre-millennial era, train travel was an inescapable part of holidaying. Almost every holiday started at the station. The bags were stuffed under the berths. Dad and uncles haggled with the coolies and we kids squabbled over the top berths. Finally, after a whistle and one lurch back and one lurch forward, the train rolled out. I loved that backward-forward motion and always exaggerated it a bit, it was the signal to the start of the holiday.

 

Were the trains less dirty in those days? Were the seats unstained with who-knows-what? Were my olfactory organs under-performing and I could use the loos without gagging? Perhaps my childlike senses had yet to develop to the hyper discerning level they are at now. Perhaps, I just didn’t care. In the last twenty years, train travel has not figured in my holiday plans. Air travel has become affordable. It is faster – every moment counts when there are only that many days you can take off work. But that’s not it. In all honesty, I’d rather change my destination than board a long-distance train. Snooty? Guilty as charged.

 

So, I surprise myself more than anyone else when I opt to take the train from Kalka to Shimla, popularly known as the toy train. Besides the rave reviews – most scenic train journey in India, exceptional panoramic views, and the likes – I am also wary of going by road for two reasons. One, I am not sure I have the stomach for the curvy mountainous road. And two, I have visions of the car tumbling down the hillside, splattering my bones and brains on the pine trees. Yes, I am morbid like that. 

 

Kalka to Shimla
Kalka to Shimla

 

All pros and cons weighed, I find myself at the Kalka station pre-sunrise. It’s a brrrry cold morning and I am layered up such that I have more clothes on me than in my suitcase. The station, almost gleaming clean, is a pleasant surprise and takes the edge off the cold. The train brings me shivering back to reality. Positives – the floral artwork on the bogey is cute, wood-panelled interiors are nice-ish and the pendulum-like seat backs can be slid to change direction. Negative – stained seats (why have we not yet discovered a solution for this?) and the characteristic grimy-ness associated with Indian trains. And the loo? I don’t intend to find out. The bowels and bladder have been emptied and I intend to keep them that way till I reach my hotel in Shimla. 

 

The first hour and a half passes in darkness interrupted by the occasional cluster of lights indicating human settlement. Not much to see outside, I Netflix and chill. It’s an hour and a half later that the first rays of the sun light up the vista that the Shivalik Express has been chugging through. And, all the accolades I had read on blogs in the weeks preceding this journey race through my head like a ticker tape. The sky is the perfect blend of dawn colours. The tree trunks are hanging on to the sloping hills at near precise angles. The route has many sharp curves and since I am in the middle bogey, there are times when I can see both the head and the tail of my train. The narrow gauge line that connects Kalka to Shimla was laid in 1903. It passes through 103 tunnels and crosses over 900+ bridges in the five hours it takes to cover a distance of 96 kilometre and ascend 1400 metre in altitude. 

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A little over two hours after it started from Kalka, the Shivalik Deluxe goes through the longest of the 103 tunnels. The Barog tunnel is a little over a kilometre long and takes 2.5 minutes to cross. At the other end of the Barog tunnel is Barog station. A row of squat buildings make up the station. The walls of all the buildings are whitewashed, the gables, accents and door-window shades are painted a cornflower blue and the rooftops are post-box red. Picture perfect. The train halts for 15 minutes for the attendants to load the bogeys with packed breakfasts, the standard Rajdhani fare of bread-cutlet or bread-omelette. The passengers stream out to stretch their legs and click the obligatory selfies. 

 

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The next leg of the journey all the way to Shimla is without any unscheduled stops. Many stations pass us by and the colour scheme of blue, white and red roofs is consistent. Some are adorned with quaint blue benches, others with pots of geraniums. At one station, a branch laden with bright pink flowers is angled across a wall with such precision that it is difficult to believe coincidence of nature could have achieved it without human intervention. Both, the parry that came up with this colour palette and the one that ensured its application need to be eulogized. 

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Unfortunately, it does not seem that they were allowed to apply their exceptional taste and influence on the towns that dot the hills. The houses are stacked like a toddler would stack his first set of Lego bricks without thought to colour, design, or symmetry, the kind that would only win applause from doting parents. Hoardings advertising lodges, products and services add to the cacophony of colours. The hillside along the rail-track which for the first leg had only been covered in vegetation is now speckled with wrappers, plastic bottles, discarded garments, and other ugly odds and ends. I suspect as man runs out of space and expands over the rest of the hills he will leave more of these breadcrumbs to mark his trail. 

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At 10:35 a.m., the train begins to slow to a crawl, its destination is around the corner. I am expecting Shimla station to repeat the blue and white. It does not entirely. I guess, sitting at the top of the pile, it needed to be set apart from its lowly subjects. But, the woodwork is artistic and the stone floor is gleaming. My breath does not catch like it did at the sight of Shoghi, Jutoh and others but it is easy on the eyes. I smile at the attendant and skip out of the bogey like I would have 20-25 years ago. The five hours had flown by. Netflix had been turned off after the first hour and I had turned not more than ten pages of my book. Mostly I had been engrossed in the images unfolding outside the window. In times, when it is usually about how fast can we get there, it had been a nice change of pace to take my time.

 

 

Note:
Photos & Doodle Courtesy – Himali Kothari.

 

Haroun and The Sea of Stories

Book Review – Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and The Sea of Stories

Salman Rushdie’s reputation as a writer is popularly defined by two books – The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. The Midnight’s Children fetched him the Booker Prize in the year of its release and later, the Booker of Bookers and the Best of the Booker. The Satanic Verses, apart from accolades and awards, fetched him a fatwa calling for his assassination. This brought him fame that extended far beyond the literary circles. For an evolved reader, a Rushdie novel features as a must-read. The fainthearted reader is likely to be overwhelmed by his literary reputation and move on to a less daunting author on the bookshelf. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the bait to reel in that hesitant reader.

 

Twelve-year old Haroun is leading a pretty nondescript existence in his hometown with his mother and his storyteller father Rashid. When his mother is seduced by the neighbour and leaves them, his father loses his gift of the gab. A storyteller who can say nothing more than ark, ark, ark is a storyteller without a job. An unexpected turn of events leads father and son to the Sea of Stories. Khattam-Shud, the evil ruler of the Kingdom of Chup is planning to plug the Story Source at the bottom of the Sea of Stories. If he succeeds, the sea will be silenced forever. Haroun and his new friends Iff, Mali – the gardener of stories, Butt the Hoopoe, and others must find a way to foil his evil plot. On the other hand, the neighbouring Kingdom of Gup is preparing to declare war against Chup to recapture Princess Batcheat, the betrothed of Prince Bolo of Gup. Haroun and his friends join forces with the Gup army led by General Kitab and storm the fortress of Chup. Will Haroun be able to help his friends in this mystical land? And what about his own life? Will he return home and have a happy end to his story?

 

While the story has a dark undertone the author uses a comic vibe to make his point. Rushdie is at his witty best with the dialogue. He liberally layers the said with the unsaid forcing the reader to stop, wonder, discover, and chuckle at the discovery. It is evident that the writer spent considerate amount of time and thought on selecting the names of all his characters. They are not merely names, they are loaded with the intent they carry to the writer. Also, they are a clever play on words. Set under the theme of good vs. evil, the names of the ‘good’ characters are all things speech (Chattergy, Gup, Bolo, Kitab) whereas their nemesis represent oppressed silence (Khattam-shud, Chup).

The premise of good vs. evil and a seemingly simplistic plot may fool a Rushdie fan into relegating Haroun… to the bottom of his reading list. It would be a grave mistake. Like all of Rushdie’s works, it is replete with symbols that draw attention to societal issues. The philosophical commentary and puns are subtle and demand a pause if they are to be truly savoured. With Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the author manages to present a story that works on two levels. One, a simple adventurous tale of a young boy in a fantastical land and two, an allegory on the power of stories. It is upon the reader to determine which one to read.

 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published in 1990, two years after Satanic Verses, a book which forced him to retreat into silence for a short while. This book appears to have been born out of that forced silence. In the story, when Haroun finally confronts Khattam-shud, he asks, “But why do you hate stories so much? Stories are fun.” A question which must have surely plagued the author himself when he was threatened with death. Perhaps, the book is a ploy by the author to convey his angst over the extreme reactions for the story he wrote. If so, it was a clever ploy for the author to write it in an accessible form, a form which would appeal to a far larger audience than his previous books. And, his appeal to the reader – don’t hate stories – gets through to the reader in this whimsical garb.

 

 

Joe Sacco's Palestine Cover Image

Palestine by Joe Sacco


For years cartoonist Joe Sacco had been watching and reading the news of the Palestinian uprising. Are all Palestinians terrorists or victims? He would ask himself as he saw the news flashing across his TV screen. What about the average guy with routine concerns like food on the table for his family and getting to work on time. Where was that guy? Dissatisfied with the media’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Joe decided that he needed to see it for himself, from ground zero.

 

In the winter of 1991-1992, he made his way to the region and parked himself in Jerusalem. For two months, he crisscrossed across the borders between West Bank, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. He met labourers, refugees, ex-prisoners, soldiers, volunteers…all the different people who were a part of the fabric of this troubled region. He met children who had not seen any other way of life and geriatrics who had lived in peaceful times much before the 1948 Palestine War. His companion on this travel was his trusty notebook for his doodles, cartoons, and observations.

 

This notebook would later take the shape of Joe Sacco’s graphic memoir – Palestine.

 

The novel, both written and illustrated by Sacco, is divided into nine issues, each one divided into multiple chapters. The story is built through anecdotes that he gathers as he travels across the region. In towns like Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron in the West Bank, he visits market places, hospitals, schools and local homes. He meets Palestinians who have spent multiple terms in Ansar III, the largest detention centre in the world. He travels to the extreme west to the Gaza Strip where he spends a week in the Jabalia refugee camp and witnesses first-hand the living conditions.

 

While his witty remarks often elicit laughter, the underlying tone of empathy for the helpless situation is starkly evident. For instance, his visit to Nablus, where a milkman he encounters in the market insists on playing tour guide. He drags Joe to the local hospital and tows him from bed-to-bed, introducing him to the casualties and listing the details of their injuries. The patients are not all rebels. Many, including children, are wounded by army bullets that zipped into their homes or school compounds. The situation is grim, but the writer’s presentation of the hospital as a tourist spot and himself as a tourist makes one laugh out loud.

 

The author’s intent is not to trivialize the Palestinian situation. Sacco’s use of humour manages to evoke discomfort in the reader, engrossed in the story from the warmth and safety of her home.

A chapter on Sacco’s interaction with the detainees from Ansar III highlights the fact that incarceration was an accepted fate by Palestinian men at the time. The story of the prisoners brings out nuances of life inside a detention camp, many of which are astonishing. For instance, the formation of committees among the prisoners to oversee seemingly mundane tasks like the equitable distribution of tea. And, the organization of lectures by the prisoners on topics like Einstein, philosophy and split-up of the Soviet Union. As also, their strategies based on the careful study of the soldiers’ routines, such as planning contentious activities just before the weekend, when the officers are looking forward to heading home.

 

At the end of the two months, Sacco visits Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel, on the insistence of two tourists he meets in Jerusalem. They want him to see ‘their side of things’. During those few hours in Tel Aviv, the writer sees a different side of the region, meets people who remind him of people he meets in America and Europe. He concedes that yes there is an Israeli side of the story which he has neglected in this novel, but that calls for another trip. This trip was an exercise to uncover the Palestinian perspective, largely disregarded by popular media.

 

Sacco alternates between playing narrator and protagonist. As the narrator, he shares with the reader his reflections on the people, their situation and the policies that govern this region. He also includes nuggets from history to help understand how events have evolved to reach the current status quo. With regards to the other characters, he is matter-of-fact, presenting them without over-dramatization and allowing the reader to draw conclusions.

 

The illustrations are monochromatic, and Sacco strikes a balance between vacuity and busyness in every box. Some bits are filled with fine lines, squiggles and other patterns, which enhance the starkness to the blank bits in the box. His drawings acquaint the reader with a close-up view of a land that has primarily been seen only through the long-focus lenses of reporters.

 

‘Palestine’ drives home the power of stories – they engage and thus, affect. And they stay with the reader, much after the news has been relegated to the archives.

Image – Joe Sacco’s Palestine