Friday, May 22, 2009

Reading update

After an upsetting day, I come home, sprawl down on the bed, and open the pages of Unaccustomed Earth, a book I had been reading all throughout the week, often keeping myself awake late into the night. It was obvious that I liked the book. Jhumpa Lahiri’s words drew me like a force, in a quiet and unassuming manner. And it allowed me to take a peep into others’ life and forget my own. But, well, there were moments when the peep into others’ life gave a glimpse of the pain and wonder that lay buried within self, freshly coming alive from the recess of forgotten memories. And that, probably, is the triumph of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fictional characters; they allow us to feel the pain and alienation of their lives in a way few fictional characters can.

Long back, I had been stumped by the stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, which I had read when I was still in college. I realize now that there were some pretty sloppy stories in that collection; but, nonetheless, some of the stories have withstood the test of time and still remain etched in my memory, the characters still alive like I’ve seen them in real life. In fact, I can still recall the way some of the stories – A Temporary Matter, Sexy, and The Third and Final Continent – touched me. Of course I was young and impressionable back then, but I have a feeling that I’ll like them even if I reread these stories today.

The next book of Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, didn’t come my way for a long time. And when it finally came, I didn’t get a chance to finish it. Till date it remains half-read, and I have ambivalent feelings towards that.

Now, with Unaccustomed Earth, I am again back to the fold, gleefully admiring the stories contained in this collection. Some of the stories in this collection had kept me awake late into the night, and these sleepless nights are probably my compliments to these stories. I have often come across comments disparaging Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing as being confined to the Indian diaspora. I don’t care much about such comments, of course. I have liked these stories and that’s it. Period. As long as she can invent stories of such quality drawn from the limited milieu of Indian (read Bengali) diaspora and still not appear hackneyed, I have no issues reading about her stories.

Among other books I recently read, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies was a bit of let-down; Irène Némirovsky’s All Our Worldly Goods was pretty good (am picking up Suite Française next); and Qurratulain Haider’s Fireflies in the Mist was an absorbing read.

Books are piling up, unread, beside my bed at an alarming rate, and my pulse races just by looking at them and imagining how much catching-up I have to do. Sigh!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A summer day

When I wake up and get ready, it is still dark outside. I load my bag with food and water and come out on the road. At the railway station, however, it’s already busy. Trains arrive and leave, people jump in and out of them. Like any other time of the day.

The day breaks as the train picks speed. The sunlight touches the trees and fields near the railway track. The morning breeze ruffles our hair. Gradually, the city thins out, the buildings and shops give way to wide open fields. After about an hour’s travel, our train is already on the hills and is passing through several tunnels. Far below, in some village, smoke is rising out of a hut.

As soon as we alight at the platform, we run towards the bus station, hop into a bus (lucky that got there in time), and travel for one more hour to reach a dusty little place from where our walk starts. After rushing around since morning, this tranquil place charms us with the very first look. We cross a tiny primary school (it’s closed today, being a holiday), a small shop, and then take the road that goes up in the hills.

During our climb up the hill, we come across several small groups of villagers, all dressed in festival clothes, ambling down to the hill. We find out the reason of festivity soon enough, when an old woman from one such group catches us for a little chat while we rest under a shade. Apparently, it’s the wedding day for one of the boys from the village on top of the hill, and the whole village is heading towards the wedding. And as if on cue, the groom also appears shortly, with garlands around his neck and a bright headgear, but, strangely, walking bare-feet. He gives us a shy grin as he passes us by. We give him an encouraging smile in return.

We finally reach the pinnacle of the fort, after negotiating a steep climb. It’s a small fort – just a few caves and water tanks, one dilapidated stone gate, and one solitary cannon. After moving around the place for some time, we find a shaded place sit down for lunch. And there, looking lazily at the valley below and the nearby hills, I gobble down two paranthas and two gulab jamuns.

The climbing down proves to be extremely difficult – the heat exhausts us completely. The good thing, however, is that the hills are full of wild karonda fruits. We pick the ripe tangy-sweet fruits – eat as much as we can and stash the rest in the polythene bags to carry home.

Rest of the return journey goes pretty uneventfully. We negotiate two bumpy tempo rides to reach the railway platform and then catch our train back.

Of course, this isn't the advisable way to spend a summer day – out in the sun when the temperature soars to 41 degree centigrade. But, well, I needed to go away somewhere, especially after the insane April I had gone through.