Monday, February 23, 2009

Memories of mountains, lost tongues, and encroaching birds

  • The place where I go the other day to withdraw money from an ATM has a new shining office of a travel company. You know the ones that sell holiday packages and arrange for your travel and stay at exotic locations. I am briskly walking past it when, through the glass walls, I see names of popular holiday destinations emblazoned all over the walls of the brightly lit office. And there, among other names, I see Naukuchiyatal. Not a very popular name perhaps (at least, not as popular as Nainital), but it rings a bell in my head. My steps stop briefly there as the splendour of the Kumaon hills come out from the recess of memory – tall trees, winding roads, deep gorges, shady groves, crisp air, and the distant towering cliffs of the Himalayas. Later in the evening, when I am struggling to cross the busy road on my way home, I think of the languid afternoon walk from that trip in the hills, and my lips curl in an imperceptible smile.
  • A recent article I read says that about 2500 languages of the world are presently endangered, out of which 199 languages have fewer than 10 speakers left. This data comes specifically from the UNESCO report UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. Piqued, I did a search there for the language ‘Koch,’ which is my mother tongue (if I strictly go by the definition, i.e., the language I inherited from my parents, even if I cannot speak it properly myself) and I found it to be listed as a definitely endangered language, with only about 31000 speakers at present. It seems, with globalization, as we move towards a more homogeneous world, there are many aspects of our lives that are being quietly wiped away. I don’t know whether to feel sad about the dwindling numbers or accept it as an inevitable sign of changing times. Yes, I agree that we should protect languages like we try to protect endangered flora and fauna, but eventually isn’t it time that determines what should survive and what should perish.
  • There is a family (I guess?) of crazy doves that lives on the cornices of the building where I live. They are forever looking for a chance to get into my house and drive me nuts. Whenever I leave the kitchen window open, they come in and create a big mess throwing things around. Previously, they had broken a bottle of soya sauce, and a few days back they broke the handle of a cup, besides many other smaller mischiefs at regular intervals. Enraged, I have tried a few times to trap them and teach them a lesson, but they are always quicker than me. And once they have flown out at a safe distance, they sit quietly and peck each other playfully as if nothing has happened, all the while giving me a nonchalant look. Occasionally, they also make a big ruckus and wake me up from my nap. Whoever thought of doves being a symbol of peace obviously was never troubled by a family of unruly doves. But, well, I guess one has to learn to live with neighbours, however obnoxious they seem. Well, while we are talking of birds, you may want to have a look at the clever crows as well.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


As it happens on Sunday afternoons, I am lazy and drowsy. But, well, I have a deadline and I have to finish something; so I try to keep myself awake and work. The going gets difficult at times though, and I have to take short breaks once in a while to get my concentration back. A little pacing inside the room, a little absent-minded gaze on the walls, a cursory look at the pile of books by my side, a quick snacking of fruits (oranges today) – one of these methods eventually gets me rejuvenated and I get back to my work. The concentration, on an average, stays between half an hour and one hour. After that, of course, it’s time for the next break. Indeed, how much lazier can one get!

So, I was practicing the absent-minded-gaze this afternoon, when my eyes fell on the multiple unread books lying in small heaps all around. I should mention here that I have a habit of tossing up books all around the room and it takes about a week to turn neatly stacked books into a mess that I lovingly create. It’s not easy to understand why I do it, but I would love to call it ‘carefully careless reading’ if that can help me do away with being messy.

Well, for those who’ve known me, nothing new in all these, of course. What is new about today, however, is that I happened to be quite amused this afternoon by looking at the way these piles of books were lying. So, on one side of my pillow lay books of Murakami’s short stories with Nalini Jonses’, both half read, with pages open, spine up, flat upon their bellies. On the other side lay unread books by three writers, as disparate as they can be – Alice Munro’s short stories and Thomas Mann’s grave-looking novel sandwiching the newbie writer Siddhartha Deb (poor Deb, who knew he would ever come between such heavyweights). The other bed on which I sit and work, I find that the scene is a little more crowded. Here, Vikram Seth’s slim travelogue is sitting atop Marquez, Guenter Grass, and Vikram Chandra (which, incidentally, is a giant book, enough to serve as a mini pillow). Beside this stack is another one where Kamila Shamsie’s feisty (bright and colorful cover) novel is jostling for space with Dario Fo’s memoir, Rana Dasgupta’s modern-day fables of stranded passengers on their way to Tokyo, and some other authors who I’m suddenly too lazy to write down now. But, of course, I cannot get away without mentioning the Qurratulain Haider’s novel, which sits alone, a little farther from the hustle and bustle, as if it decided to do so on its own will. Probably, some books do have their own personality, after all.

Hmm, enough of running wild, I guess. The work beckons me again.

PS: Barring a couple of them, all these books are waiting to be picked up some day. Sigh!

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Strange worlds

I’ve earlier mentioned about my liking for fiction. But, in fiction too, I have a particular liking for short stories, which I probably haven’t mentioned earlier. Anyway, what I’m getting at is: these days my readings are usually so novel-centric that short stories do not get as much attention, although it was short stories that attracted me to books in the first place. In fact, not just stories in books, I also grew up listening to stories narrated by my grandmother. So, the taste of stories actually built up even before I picked up a book.

My earlier reading of short stories revolved around simple narratives, where something always happened, someone died or lived happily ever after, someone got punished or rewarded. They were linear, straightforward, and easy to read. I devoured them. Those were days of simple unbridled joys.

Then came the discoveries of other short stories – more experimental – not necessarily concerned with time span, more with the inner workings of the characters. And sometimes, the characters behaved in a manner so uncouth and unbecoming (so I thought back then) that I was startled to no end. In these stories, people behaved in manners not deemed proper, there were no happy endings; well, sometimes no endings at all. And not to mention, sometimes, the stories touched on themes that were probably not meant for young readers like me. But, I read them anyway, with palpitating heart and a strange awakening of something inside that was all hazy yet attractive. I was lucky in a way that nobody monitored what I read. Those were the days of strange discoveries, unknown fears and joys. And, probably, those days are still not over, never will. I'm still discovering stranger worlds.

Anyway, the reason I blabbered all these is because I had been reading Haruki Murakami’s excellent collection of short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (link to a review of the book), which is full of strange, elliptical, and yet delightful stories. Many a times, after reading a story from the book, I throw the book aside, come out to the balcony, stare outside and wonder who these people in the stories may be.

Well, I guess I shouldn't wonder. I would probably appear as strange if someone writes a story about me. Or, about anyone else for that matter.