Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bus tales

  • I’m sitting in a bus for about 16 hours, cramped and exhausted and grimy. The bus is full of villagers who are coming to the city, probably to work as labourers in the construction sites. They have a haggard and unwashed look about them and they talk rather loudly. Obviously, some passengers were not too pleased when the bus stopped to pick these villagers. But, after the long overnight journey all are quiet and exhausted. Then, just when the bus is entering the city and passing by the railway station, a man shouts out to the woman sitting in front of me. He’s asking her to look at the train outside. This woman balances a child with her one spindly arm, lifts her veil, and looks out of the window. There’s a look of amazement in her face mixed with awe, curiosity, and excitement – everything that showed that she’s looking at train for the first time in her life.

  • The bus I take out of the village square is being driven by an avuncular and jovial bus driver (a rare combination, I guess). He smiles easily, and smokes constantly. Holding a cigarette between his fingers, he often negotiates the sharp hilly bends with just one hand. Even with both hands, I realize, these roads will be considerably difficult to drive. To complicate things, this is an ancient bus that creaks with every movement. But then, he may have been driving all his life on these roads. He even seems to know his passengers. The teenage girls sitting by his seat bursts into giggles at something he says, villagers we pass by wave at him. All these, somehow, reminds me of this scene.

  • On an extremely crowded bus, I am standing and trying to keep myself steady by holding on to the overhead rods. It doesn’t help. The roads are almost non-existent, and they pass through sharp bends on the hilly terrain. I’m barely standing, swaying more. But, my co-passengers of the bus, the local villagers, are not much bothered by any of these. They go about their usual business, which is mostly talking with each other. Nothing deters them – not the deafening roar of the bus, the steaming heat, or the delicate balancing act. In fact, they often chuckle as if on a joyride. Anyway, when it’s time to pay the bus fare, I’m struggling to take out money from my wallet. The bus conductor, seeing the plight of a hapless outsider, swiftly pulls out the exact notes from my wallet, keeps the fare, and also puts the change back. Now, that made me chuckle.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Secret taken to the grave

I believe in the refusal to take part.
I believe in the ruined career.
I believe in the wasted years of work.
I believe in the secret taken to the grave.
These words soar for me beyond all rules
without seeking support from actual examples.
My faith is strong, blind, and without foundation.

Discovery, Wislawa Szymborska

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Notes from PIFF 2012

Of all the films that I watched at Pune International Film Festival (PIFF) 2012, I found a common theme running – and that’s the theme of family – of people you grow up with, stay together, and sometimes turn away from. I watched relatively less number of films – 14 in all – and I personally didn’t find my experience of PIFF this year to be as rewarding. There were reasons many – inconvenience of changed venues, some utterly juvenile crowd, and to some extent the films themselves. Anyway, here’s some notes of my viewings.

Café Lumiere, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s tribute to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, is a film that captivated me with its beguiling sense alienation. The film shows us a young Japanese woman, Yoko, who is a freelance writer living alone in a Tokyo flat, and researching for her book on a Taiwanese composer. She does have a family – a father and step-mother – who don’t really understand her way of life, especially the fact that Yoko is pregnant, but doesn’t want to marry her boyfriend. That’s just the surface of the story, and much of the film’s beauty lie in the way it conjures up a sense of profundity while showing us nothing but the absolutely mundane. In some ways in reminded of Somewhere, a film I watched at last PIFF. Sample the opening scene: Yoko is just back from her research trip to Taiwan, and is talking on her cellphone while putting her washings on the tiny clothesline strung outside her window. We don’t know who she’s talking to, but her voice is friendly and intimate. Just then, there’s a sound of doorbell (it’s her landlady) and putting the phone down Yoko moves to the door to have a brief chitchat. The camera, however, does not follow her and remains fixed like a still observer. We see no one in the frame except the wet clothes fluttering in the breeze, interspersed with voices of people we haven’t known yet.

The other Hou Hsiao-hsien film I watched, A Summer at Grandpa’s, is different – with its straight narrative, greater movement, and seemingly picturesque depiction of rural Taiwan and all the fun of childhood. The story follows two siblings who are sent away to their grandparents’ place for the summer vacation as their severely ill mother undergoes treatment in the hospital. I had personal reasons to like the story since much of my summer vacations were likewise spent at my grandparents place, doing things the kids are shown doing in the film – taking a bath in the river, befriending the village boys, climbing trees, and idling away the days without a care in the world. The other reason I liked this viewing was because I watched this in a near-empty theater (this being an early morning show) and the audience was really well-behaved (something I found lacking this year). Thus, it became easy to get transported in scenes like the one where we see kids play (racing turtles) under a big tree. A long shot shows us the activity from afar: we see the breeze caught on the tree's leaves, there's birdsong in the background, and hear the excited shouts reverberating in an otherwise quiet morning.

Iranian film A Separation was a surprise. It’s excellent in many ways – the story reveals itself in many layers, the cast is well-chosen, and it subtly affects our thoughts. It raises questions without being too explicit and it remains humane even in the most critical moments. The film opens as Nader and Simin, a married couple, are arguing over a divorce. The wife wants a secure future for their teenage daughter and wants to settle abroad. The husband doesn’t want to leave because he has a father who has Alzheimer’s and needs care. Amidst this discord they had to hire a domestic help – a woman who has her own problems of a unemployed husband, financial trouble, and her pregnancy. From here the film takes off to confront us with several themes – on family, social status, legal proceedings, and the grey line that separates right and wrong. This is as taut as any well-made thriller. Glad that this film ran to a packed house.

There was a retrospective on Yasujiro Ozu this year and I caught two of his films – The End of Summer and Floating Weeds. I had been unfamiliar about Ozu’s films but had read him to be a fastidious filmmaker (known for his tatami-level unmoving camera) concerning mostly with traditional Japanese family drama. I found both the films excellent, Floating Weeds more so. While The End of Summer deals with a patriarch (and his escapades) of a large business family, Floating Weeds tells us the story of an itinerant master of a travelling theater group who has a past to confront. Much of the things Ozu dealt in his films are now strange and foreign to many. They are rooted in a past that has changed beyond recognition. In an age of excesses, they remind us what is to be gentle, meditative, and spartan. To end, a special mention for Haruko Sugimura, the actress who appear in both these films (she was a Ozu regular) and superbly acted in such contrasting roles – in one as a somewhat feisty talkative woman with emotional outbursts, and in the other as a gentle old mistress who is surprisingly dignified and reserved.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Transcribing

Out of whim I bought a pot of ink yesterday to try on the fountain pen I sometimes use. Since I found nothing original to test-write, I thought I'll transcribe something. The following lines, which I found quoted in an Alice Munro story I recently read, seemed good enough to begin with.
There is no sorrow
Time heals never;
No loss, betrayal,
Beyond repair.
Balm for the soul, then,
Though grave shall sever
Lover from loved
And all they share;
See, the sweet sun shines,
The shower is over,
Flowers preen their beauty,
The day how fair!
Brood not too closely
On love, on duty;
Friends long forgotten
May wait you where
Life with death
Brings all to an issue;
None will long mourn for you,
Pray for you, miss you,
Your place left vacant,
You not there.
These lines were originally written by Walter de la Mare (who, I confess, I never heard of) and the Alice Munro story, it appears, germinates from these very lines: ‘None will long mourn for you, / Pray for you, miss you, / Your place left vacant—

Friday, April 15, 2011

Togetherness

There’s this little-known book At Home in the Himalayas that I read sometime back. It’s a non-fiction, sort of an autobiography, that chronicles the life of the author, Christina Noble, who comes from Scotland to the little town of Manali in the ’70s on a hiking trip. What began as a hiking trip soon became a way of life for her – she went about setting a business of arranging adventure trips, got involved in the local life, married and settled down with two young children, and spent a significant amount of years in the high Himalayas. In this book she recounts the experiences of those years – from the awe-inspiring beauty and grandeur of the high mountains, to the practicalities of setting up business with the help of local folks and dealing with the challenges of going about daily life. But, the most interesting bits come in the form of those little observations she has of the place and the people as well as her personal equations with them; she’s not an aloof observer and her tone is caring yet critical. So, there we get glimpses of domesticity, festival and feast, marriages and deaths, trust and betrayal – all noted with candid detail.

This is a long preamble, but probably a necessary one. What I wanted to write about is a section of this book – just a few odd paragraphs, really – that has uncannily stayed with me for a long time. In those paragraphs is described the scene and mood of a picnic. It’s towards the end of the book, and the author had already lived in the place for many long years, and has already formed a close-knit group of people who she deals with – her domestic helps, families she had known and lived with, her employees of the trekking business, her milkwomen, suppliers, and some other acquaintances. So, on the picnic day, we see all these people, along with their families and children, scrambling up the hill to a grassy meadow. Up there, frenetic activity is going on – a makeshift chulha is being dug, firewood is being gathered, pots and plates are being gathered, wild mushrooms are being plucked, vegetables are being cut, meat is being cleaned, and local brew is being poured. It’s busy yet leisurely and the bonhomie is captured with a detail that’s endearing and, in certain way, poignant. After the cooking and feasting, women sing and dance putting their sleeping babies on the grass, people laugh freely, and memories are reminisced. It’s plain, simple, and merry.

I’ve often thought about the scene and wondered what’s it that makes it so appealing to me. Given my unsocial self, it should just read like a plain high-spirited revelry. But, for some reason, it doesn’t; rather, I wonder what it’ll be like to have a day of such unadulterated fun.

Anyway, what brought this scene back to me tonight is a little endearing film named Pieces of April, which I watched while eating my cold leftover dinner from a small bowl.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dashing

One of the first things I learned on the job – as a hassled-looking, grubby, emaciated, underpaid, overworked, and barely noticeable copy-editor – was the use of dashes. I mean the punctuation marks – en-dashes and em-dashes. I struggled then, and I still struggle, to get them correct. But, over the years I figured out a rule in my head to make use of en-dashes far more than em-dashes. Em-dashes—as you see—are “unappealingly long” (I’m filching a bit from Wikipedia here). And if you use spaced em-dashes — like this — it introduces an awfully wide break, which finicky readers may find unacceptable. So, my rule has been to use spaced en-dash – like this – at every place where I felt the need of an em-dash, which is mostly for parenthetical expressions and occasionally to elaborate something in a sentence. As should be evident by now, I like using dashes – en-dashes especially – so much that if I have to list my favorite punctuation marks, dashes are likely to stay at the top.

So, what is it about a dash that I like? I guess it’s the little wanderings it allow us mid-sentence. A dash is like a respite, a little escape, while not necessarily straying away completely. Well, of course not everyone thinks this way. More serious writers are likely to utilize dashes to infuse more supplementary ideas or give more elegant and winding sentences.

If I remember correctly, I didn’t like dashes at the beginning. As a rookie copy-editor it was a nightmare to proofread a GOP – that’s Galley of Pages, for the uninitiated – strewn with dashes. Justifying which one of these dashes stay put, and deciding which ones I strike off, were (to put it mildly) difficult. People who submits articles to scientific journals – though extremely sound in technical matters – are not always known for being careful with their language. It was rather scary to edit an article from, say, Taiwan, Sweden, or Turkey. And if they were full of strange punctuations we were in the soup.

But the initial dislike, in time, wore off. I moved from being the grubby, emaciated copy-editor to become the vain, well-fed guy who I’d have hated back in my copy-editing days. Anyway, some vestiges of copy-editing remained – often resurfacing when I had to re-read something I wrote and found them crawling with mistakes. I may not have made a competent copy-editor, but these moments told me I was not a complete failure either – I still had the eye to catch at least some of my mistakes, which I wish I never give away.

It’s only when I moved away from copy-editing that I found the pleasing sense of using a dash. I started using, and still use them – though often without fully understanding the grammatical intricacies. I hope the earnest copy-editors will ignore this fallen one of their flock. Please, allow me to use my dashes – however sloppily – and look elsewhere when I’m having some fun with them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

First book of the year

Moral Disorder is the first Margaret Atwood book I finished reading. Earlier, I had managed to bring home a few of her books and then return them back to the library, unread. This, I’m afraid, probably doesn’t tell well of my reading habits. Anyway, coming back to the reading of Moral Disorder – which incidentally is also my first reading of this year – one feels the prowess of an author who is at the peak of her form. It’s as if the author lets herself flow – a measured, controlled flow, bearing the weight of experience – and the stories just take shape, almost on their own, following trajectories they had to follow, and described in a tone that’s perfect. These stories that do not overwhelm us with their spectacularness, but these stories that stay with us, linger in our minds, evokes strange emotions, and demands re-reading. I have already read it, in piecemeal, about twice; some stories more than that.

Moral Disorder is a collection of eleven short stories, which can probably also pass off as a novel, when viewed as a whole. These stories, brought in from different periods of time, essentially tells the stories of a fixed set of connected characters; the main character, Nell, being the apparent alter-ego of the author. There is much that tends to be autobiographical here, but that’s beside the point – this nosey hair-splitting business of how much of it is actually drawn from personal life – and it stands, like any good fiction, hovering over the tantalising realm of unknown.

It begins with Bad News, which is set approximately in present day, and introduces us to an elderly couple, Nell and her husband Tig, going about usual business one of the mornings.

In The Art of Cooking and Serving, the second story, we go back in time and meet Nell, who’s all of 11-year-old and is furiously knitting in preparation for welcoming her unborn sister. When not knitting, the girl is also taking care of household chores, because her expectant mother is not supposed to work much, her father is always away on his expeditions, and her brother away in boarding school. For some reasons, this is a story I have gone back to several times. This is a very beautiful and touching portrayal of a lonely childhood – pleasing and pensive.

The Headless Horseman, the third story, takes us much forward in time when we see Nell and her sister driving home to see her ailing widowed mother. However, as the story moves forward, the story, through reminisces of the sisters, moves back and forth in time – mostly about a Headless Horseman outfit Nell had created one Halloween and what happened to it afterwards.

In the fourth story, My Last Duchess, we see Nell on the brink of her high school finals. The title of the story is taken from a Robert Browning poem, which Miss Bessie, the English teacher, is teaching the class. In this story we also get a glimpse of puppy love between Nell and Bill, a classmate who Nell occasionally helps study English poetry. They break up over their different views of the Browning poem.

By the fifth story, The Other Place, Nell is an estranged, floating woman, living on her own, changing jobs and cities at will, carrying only her meagre belongings (books, clothes, towel) wherever she goes. This is a phase – uncertain, unsettled, and doubtful – that is not just physical, but also mental.

Monopoly, the sixth story, begins rather strikingly (“Nell and Tig ran away to the country.”) But, more than moving forward, the story goes backward from there, introducing us to the circumstances that brought Nell and Tig together. Alongside, we also meet Tig’s wife Oona and the “boys” (their two sons). With this story we also see a change in voice – from first person to third person – as if the author now wants to have a more critical view by observing from a distance. This is actually the first time we learn that the stories narrated earlier was by someone named Nell.

The seventh and eighth stories – Moral Disorder and White Horse – both deal, somewhat similarly, to the country life Nell and Tig tries to settle into. These two are expansive stories that have several pastoral themes running. There are vegetables being grown, animals being tended and raised, local folks being befriended. But, above all, it’s the several domestic animals – especially the lamb in Moral Disorder and the horse Gladys in the White Horse – that lend certain poignancy to these stories; Nell’s love and concern for them almost motherly. Indeed, we do get to learn Nell’s longing to become a mother (in Moral Disorder) and by the end of White Horse, we find Nell pregnant.

By the time we reach The Entities, the ninth story, much time has passed. Nell and Tig has moved away from the countryside. Tig’s first wife, Oona, now unhappy, lonely and ailing, now wants a home, which they eventually buy her. In the course of the story, Lillie, an ageing but fastidious real-estate broker also makes an appearance.

The last two stories – The Labrador Fiasco and The Boys at the Lab – are separated by a gap of few years but both deal with old age. The Labrador Fiasco is about Nell’s ailing father and The Boys at the Lab is about Nell’s mother on deathbed. Though they both deal with a similar theme – old age – they unfold differently. The Labrador Fiasco weaves a disastrous real-life expedition story into the narrative of a dying man, Nell’s father, who is gradually losing his memory. In The Boys at the Lab, conversely, we see memory being revived and reconstructed through a series of old photographs and conversations. Both these stories are unsentimental yet caring, sad but still full of life, even if these are the lives of dying ones.

It's probably not a suitable thing to briefly outline the stories, like I just did. It doesn't really give anyone a good idea about what these stories may be like. Much of the brilliance of these stories are due to Atwood's writing; one needs to read them to fully appreciate them.