Caught behind but not out!

Monday, January 30, 2006

Midnight's Children


This blog has taken two weeks to create. That’s how long I took to find time amidst the crevices of the day to read the book. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. The story reinforces something which I keep pointing out to myself everytime- its not the story that counts but how the story has been told. The book I must warn you is tedious reading. It requires effort to read it and really see the different layers that unfold as the book progresses. Rushdie handles his characters with ease. Each one of the characters has a significant role. Probably the kind of movie in which every character is hero and villain personified.

The protagonist of the book is Saleem Sinai, the narrator. He is one of the 1001 children born when India breathed freedom. Those born closer to the midnight hour hold greater powers than others. There are children who have the power to change form, pass through mirrors, travel through time etc. Saleem, who was born exactly “at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps……” has the power to read minds. He is the most powerful of them all.

Apparently the book has some underpinnings in Gunter Grass’s The Tin drum. I haven’t read the book but its definitely up on my reading list.

The prophecy of the birth of Saleem Sinai unfolds in a very interesting manner. That’s something I might not be able to delve into but however for the sake of completeness I must include it.

A son……..A son, Sahiba, who will never be older than his motherland- neither older nor younger. ……..There will be two heads but you shall see only one- there will be knees and a nose, a nose and knees. ..listen carefully, Padma; the fellow got nothing wrong! “Newspapers shall praise him, two mothers shall raise him.! Bicyclists love him, but crowds will shove him! Washing will hide him- voices will guide him! Friends mutilate him- blood will betray him! Spitoons will brain him- doctors will drain him- jungle will claim him – wizards reclaim him! Soldiers will try him- tyrants will fry him. He will have sons without having sons. He will be old before he is old.. And he will die….before he is dead

In a nutshell, that’s the whole book! All 533 pages knotted down to a few lines. Easy isn’t it?

Saleem enters a classic Prince and the pauper scenario where two children born at the midnight hour in the hospital are switched. The one to be doomed to poverty ends up under affluent circumstances. Saleem’s distinguishing feature is his long nose. Shiva, the child who by the twist of fate ends up in poverty has powerful knees- the power endowed by midnight. The name Shiva is no accident- he is the procreator and the destroyer.(Recall the prophecy, nose and knees, knees and nose)

A very interesting note which I cant resist mentioning. The Prime minister, Nehru, writes a letter to Saleem Sinai:

Dear baby Saleem , My belated congratulations on the happy accident of your moment of birth! You are the newest bearer of that ancient face of India which is also eternally young. We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be a sense, the mirror of our own.

Saleem continues to narrate about how every blow India took hurt him as well. He takes blame for the fortunes and miseries of India. (Disbelief is best discarded!)

Rushdie is full of clever lines throughout the book. For instance, history reaches the stage where Gandhi is shot by Godse. Every muslim is in hiding until the name of the shooter was out. Nathuram Godse.

Thank God, Amina burst out, its not a muslim name”. And Aadam, upon whom the news of Gandhi’s death had placed a new burden of age: “This Godse is nothing to be grateful for!”……….”Why not, after all? By being Godse he has saved our lives!

The story progresses quickly as Saleem’s life undergoes several twists and he ends up in Pakistan post partition. Rushdie’s love for Bombay is very clear in these instances and his eagerness to bring Saleem Sinai back to where he belonged is evident. That’s what eventually happens.

The several layers of the book also slowly reveal themselves. Saleem writes:

….I had also been overwhelmed by an agonizing feeling of sympathy for the country which was not only my twin in birth but also joined to me (so to speak) at the hip, so that what happened to either of us, happened to us both. If I, snot- nosed and stain faced etcetera, had had a hard time of it the so had she, my sub continental twin sister; and now that I had given myself the right to choose a better future, I was resolved that the nation should share it too.

Such was the conjoined nature of Saleem’s life. Shiva’s story keeps playing its own tune in the background and intertwines into Saleem’s life when he returns to India from Pakistan. It is here that the story takes drastic turns and Rushdie’s vents his fury against Ms. Gandhi. His life passes through the peak of her regime and the chaotic times of emergency. Rushdie alludes to Ms. Gandhi’s hair – black and white- as reflecting the duality of evil that lies within. Referring to her as ‘the Widow’ he squarely blames her for the ensuing pit that his life falls into.

And as the story progresses down the long winding road where the end is near. Saleem Sinai ends up in a pickle factory run by the nurse who switched the children at the midnight hour- his second mother. (remember the prophecy!) I cant refrain from pointing this out as it builds to a very clever line which interjects its way:

One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, theur smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth….that they are despite everything, acts of love.

The story at this point comes a full circle. Saleem Sinai’s tumultuous life is about to end.
As Rushide, beautifully puts it “….because it is the privilege and curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes and to be unable to live or die in peace.”

So ends the book. Midnight’s children. Its very hard to capture the entire essence of the book or to give some flavour of the story that it is. I hope I have done well.

Trivia:

This book won the 1981 Booker prize and followed it up with a 1993 Booker of Bookers.

In the book, Saleem Sinai narrates the story to Padma. Interestingly Padma Lakshmi is Rushdie's present love interest.

Other interesting links for the more enthused:

Review by the Times Literary Supplement
More quotes from Wikiquote
A feature on Times list of all time 100 novels

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Quote and Unquote Wicker Park


I saw this movie called Wicker Park a few months ago. The movie stuttered through the beginning but like symphonies that end with allegros the pace of the movie turned out to be awesome. It could be called a typical love story of sorts. However, its important to note that a movie is not about the story but its more about how the story is told. Wicker Park excelled in this respect.

A remake of the French movie L' Appartement (meaning what it sounds like in english) ; the story deals with a young executive, Mathew- a seemingly perfect life- engaged to a beautiful woman. His past however hides a passionate affair with a another woman Alex, whom he still loves. A sequence of events leads to him wanting to find Alex again (no this isnt remotely like Serendipity) And along this path there is a third woman Lisa who provides what Jeffery Archer would have happily called 'A Twist to the tale'. Watch the movie before yawning and saying 'the typical love triangle.'

This blogpost is however not about the movie. Its about a couple of lines in the movie that blew me away, the time I watched it.

(Mathew finds Lisa and is about to dump Rebecca, his fiancee; who loves him)
Matthew: I needed you to know.
Rebecca: Know what? Know what, Matthew? That I'm not the girl who can break your heart?

******

Matthew: When you see something from afar, you develop a fantasy. But when you see it up close, 9 times out of 10, you wish you hadn't.

******

Lisa: Take my picture. I'm feeling beautiful tonight.

(sigh!)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Of traffic and lights

Some time ago I recall reading an incident about O. Henry where a reporter asks him where he gets his stories from. "Look around you. There are stories everywhere." He said. He then picked up a menu card at the restraunt and after giving it a glance said, "There is a story in this" and he wrote Springtime a la carte. A classic O. Henry story. I must have read it over a million times but it reading it again gives me that kind of cozy cuddly feeling...that the whole world is still in place...that life is still wonderful...that the world spins from west to east...that hope is indeed beautiful in spirit.

Today I bumped into this very nice story about traffic lights. Here's the link. It truly does reaffirm what O. Henry said. Perhaps traffic lights aren't what they seem!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

On compassion

The Washington Post recently had an article on Dalai Lama's visit to Washington. In the write up Joel Achenbach makes a mention of the Dalai Lama's recent book.

His new book, The Universe in a Single Atom, states that the scientific method by itself has never truly explained certain features of human spirituality, such as compassion. He makes a distinction between the core values of a religion, which can't change, and the doctrines that are mutable, like the bit about the moon. But he clearly sees no problem being fully spiritual and fully scientific. He believes in freedom, which includes the freedom to use one's brain.

I must admit that I have not read the book and I doubt if I will create an opportunity to read it.

I found this note interesting because he days that science can never explain compassion and other features of human spirituality. To put it very naively, aren't qualities such as compassion emergent properties of an social system? The fact that the survival of a species is not dependent on the induvidual alone but on the entire set of induviduals the species interacts with. There was an article in 2000 on Edge.org by Dr. V.S. Ramachandran on the subject of Mirror Neurons. He proposes that these neurons might explain social interactions in humans, why we empathize with other people.

I have always maintained that science (or reasoning if you choose to call it) will find an explanation. The explanation not being around now does not imply it will never come by. The world is filled with a lot of smart people. Some one is bound to find an answer to the why's and the why not's!

Friday, January 20, 2006

I'm sweet enough

The first time I came to the US, I naturally made the courtesy call to Starbucks. After all, its Tirupathi's equivalent out here. There's so much in common between the two- they take 'donations', give you 'holy water' and also provide for a nice place to meditate.

So, after picking up my coffee and glancing at a pretty looking girl who was beating away at her computer, I went over to pick up sugar for my coffee. This came as quite a shock to me the first time I saw it. Brown sugar! Brown sugar??? Yes, this is sugar which is brown. so what's new? Anyways, there were packets of brown sugar. Someone pointed out that it was raw and hence brown (I'm still trying to think who that outstandingly intelligent being was. Like I didn't know!) I wondered if sugar conoisseurs liked to consume it the way whiskey conoisseurs like their drinks neat.

The New Scientist has an article that blew away the clouds of ignorance. Brown sugar is similair to raw sugar in all respects except that it is synthetic raw sugar. Sounds like an oxymoron? Anyway let me stop going down alleyways and get straight to the point.

Sugar is brown due to the presence of molasses. The sugar is polished and decolourised to give white shiny crystals which are about 1mm in size. The molasses has a lot of dietary supplements like iron and vitamins which are lost in the process of polishing. The brown sugar that we eat however is not produced in this manner. It is white sugar supplemented with molasses to make it brown. Essentiall,y this process allows for better control of how much molasses is present in the end product. Strangely, the economics work better that way. For more details on this click here. This links to an article on New Scientist "I'm sweet enough" (No this article is not about me :P)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A penny for my thoughts - 3

hunger

There are only three colours in this world. Black. White. And grey. Every other colour is an illusion. A thought process. Perhaps being colour blind is normal. Perhaps it isn’t. But who can tell.

Black is the only colour that a lot of people around the world get to see. Darker but never brighter. Shankar and Pandu saw this for most of their lives. Their history is uncertain but maybe they had a few grey and white moments as soon as they were born. The first rain maybe. I can’t say for sure. Some people simply live their lives in monochrome.

For many, content lives are lived with food and water. Twice a day would do. Sometimes once would have to suffice. None was almost intolerable but who kept count! Water is abundant and is available from dripping faucets and lonely water pumps. Food sometimes is an unfulfilled promise. Hunger.

One such water pump became their home. It had only been a week since their escape from the orphan home where abuse was a form a life. Abuse manifested itself in various forms but it had to be there. It was part of the morning prayer and the night meal. It had no holidays or wasn’t popular only during the summer. Choice isn’t a luxury that children in the orphan home could afford. It was like the many things that we have little choice over in our lives. The air we breathe. Birth.

Shankar felt the gash on his forehead. He had refused to eat and the warden threw the plate at him. He could still feel the cold steel slice past. It had been three days since his last meal. He wished he had eaten that day. He looked at Pandu. He lay curled up. He was hoping to make his stomach as small as possible. It wouldn’t feel too empty that way. Naivety.

Shanker gave Pandu a shove and woke him up. “It’s time to find some food.” Pandu didn’t reply. He was busy rubbing his eyes and trying to wake up. Saturday evening and the crowded streets of Chennai. They wandered through the busy roads of Chennai, which had a kind of loud ambience amidst the smoke curtains of vehicles that hadn’t been through emission tests.

The culinary pleasures that float in the air made it past the garbage which they sat next to. Human noses aren’t really that sensitive but hunger sniffs along.At times.

"Pandu, are you feeling hungry?" Shankar asked. Pandu turned around and slapped him. He then continued to smoke the half-smoked beedi that had fallen out of a passer by's hand. Shankar remained silent. "I have a plan" said Pandu "Let’s steal from that tea stall at that corner" Shankar was shocked at this suggestion. "Steal? Isn’t it something that’s bad?" Pandu threw the beedi aside and slapped Shankar. Harder this time. Shankar felt the ring permeating his senses. He struggled to hold back the tear that was making its way out of his eyes. He knew he would get hit again if he cried. He had learnt it the hard way.

Shankar and Pandu got to know each other under rather strange circumstances. One night in the orphan home, Pandu came late for dinner. The warden was mad at him and beat him. Shankar was so frightened looking at this, he peed in his pants. The warden ended up locking both of them into a room. They spent the night there. That was the beginning of their strange friendship. Shankar was beaten by Pandu on many occasions but somehow felt a strange sense of security beside him. When Pandu decided to get out of that place, Shankar gladly agreed to come along.

Pandu looked around. The street was fairly crowded. Saturday evenings were generally like that. Lovers walking, hand in hand, looking content. Women with shopping bags appearing satisfied with their massacre. The shopkeeper counting away his 100 rupee notes and looking around eagerly for more bait. Many others walked around like Alice- not knowing where they were going in which case it hardly mattered where they would end up.
The sweet smell of satisfaction was nauseating to Pandu. He couldn’t remember the last time he smiled. He wondered if a smile was something one needed to practice. Hunger once again clawed. Even the thought of a smile vanished and was replaced by an almost certain rage to fulfill hunger.

Pandu looked at the fat man in a sweet stall that looked quite prosperous. He looked physically inept to run making him a likely target. “Shankar, I will creep up to his shop and steal that bag of sweets hanging in front of the shop and run away. The shopkeeper is sure to start chasing me leaving the shop unattended. It should give you time to sneak away with all the food that you can grab. Run to our watering hole with the food and wait for me. You know what will happen to you if you try to eat the food without me, right?” Pandu gave Shankar a menacing look. Shankar meekly nodded to this and assured him that he would wait.

Pandu slowly made his way up to the stall. The shopkeeper was busy talking to one of his customers. The time seemed right. Pandu grabbed the packet of sweets that was up front and made a dash. The shopkeeper yelled, “Thief!” and began chasing him. Pandu meandered his way through the crowd cleverly. The shopkeeper was a bigger and heftier man. He shoved people aside and continued to chase Pandu. The chase was shortlived. He found a stone on the road. He threw it at Pandu. The stone struck him at the back of his head and he fell down instantly. A crowd started to form around him and the blood started to puddle. The shopeekper pulled the sweets out of his hand, dusted it and made his way back to the shop. Pandu’s face seemed to have a contorted smile on it. One cant be too sure if that was a smile. It was an expression that would remain frozen on his face. It was his last.

A steady rain poured down. The muncipal authorities arrived and threw the body into their van and left. After all, the streets needed to be cleansed. The dirt removed. No one bothered to think about what happened. A stray dog might have quivered at this sight. If it knew what quiver was.

Meanwhile, Shankar had made away with quite a haul of sweets and pakoras. It was late into the evening and Pandu had not turned up yet. The rain made him shiver. Shankar was quite tempted to eat the sweets but every time he wanted to touch them, he thought about the menacing look on Pandu’s face. He was sure Pandu would find out if he ate. The crumb stuck to the corner of his lip might give him away. He wished Pandu would come soon.

The evening turned darker and gave birth to the night. Darkness. Silence. A sudden growl. It was Shankar’s stomach. The animal within was clawing. He needed to do something about it.

He looked around to make sure no one was watching. His mouth watered at the thought of his first meal in three days. It all stopped however when the image of Pandu propped up in his mind. He soon ushered himself back to sleep. He tried to curl up into a position that made his stomach as small as possible.

Shrouded in darkness, the lone rat scurried away with every morsel it could find before running away into its hole. The food Shankar had brought with him seemed like a treasure trove to it. Shankar could hear it nibbling on the food he had with him. Hunger. He made a sudden motion with his hand and chased the rat away. His mind was a blank slate. His neurons no longer had the strength to feed images that might stop him. He picked up the food and ate. Tears welled in his eyes. He continued to eat. In the darkness

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The beginning, the end or somewhere between

Priya walked back home…sadness was in the air and it blew stiff. She could feel it ruffle through her hair and dry the tear drop that was about to fall. Amidst all the noise on the road,there was silence. She was making her way back home from the hospital. A few coughs accompanied with traces of blood prompted her to make her way for a test. It had been around for about a month but she had made every effort to hide the truth from her husband, Shankar. It would be hard. The end of life seemed to be waving its flag a little too soon for her. Wasn’t this just the beginning? A wonderful marriage, a new job.She knew that they did not have enough money to afford treatment. Perhaps, just enough to keep her going the extra mile. She walked back amidst the silence.

She smiled to herself when she thought about how Shankar would have to cook for himself. He was such an awful cook. She laughed when she thought about the time he mixed up sugar for salt when he made dinner. Nevertheless, it did make for a sweet evening. She would miss packing his lunch, waiting for him to come home to dinner. She saw the children playing at the park and thought about how she no longer needed to contend with the fact that she could have none. The sweet scent of jasmine tingled the days of romance. An innocent touch. A stolen kiss.

Cars honked, cycle bells clinked, the odd cow stood completely ominous to the traffic that surrounded it. Chewing. People shouted at the cow but it seemed quite well settled. Priya crossed the road amidst the cries. - Shooo! Can’t you leave!!! Stupid creature! It persisted. She walked past a glorious view of the cow and the sunset. Perhaps the first of her lasts. Every sunset would be different. But isn’t that true about everything? Life, cars, dogs, houses, rivers.

She reached home and found Shankar waiting for her. He looked at her in the eyes. The eyes are windows- open windows. Shankar went up to her and held her tight. It seemed to her that he knew all along. “I saw the stains” was all that he said. The tears made their way. This time it was happiness. She knew that she would be fine.

At that moment the white blood cells stopped dividing. They considered giving her a second chance. But the mutations were many and the chances of survival few. They continued to divide. This time unwillingly.

Its hard to say what drives the human soul onwards. Will Priya survive? I don’t know because this is where the story ends. Perhaps you can decide. Being a survivor is not always about cancer being cured. Reality is a lot harsher than that. To conquer cancer is to live until the forces of nature decide otherwise.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Crossing roads when the signs are green

The easiest thing to do to while away two hours is to get a movie. A good movie makes it worth the time. A bad movie...regrettable. The Shining and Hotel Rwanda were two movies I watched over the week. (or maybe over two days)
Both movies were really worth it and the movie that really struck a chord within was Hotel Rwanda. I wont go about reviewing what it was about.

Briefly though, it talks about genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 where 800,000 people were killed over 100 days of the civil unrest.

The movie potrays two very key ideas:

1) How one man's efforts helped save the lives of many people in the country

2) The callousness of the so called 'superpowers' of the world.

No country extended a hand to help Rwanda out fo the crisis. The UN didnt budge becuse we all know that the UN is run by a bunch of guys with veto power. One disagrees and thats enough to send the UN back to its room. Timeout!

Vested interests are the key. I am quite sure that even Iraq was never in such a situation but here was Rwanda- left to rot. While the expenses of the US pile up in Iraq I wonder why there wasnt a shred of interest in matters relating to Rwanda.
President Clinton apoligised during his visit to the African continent. I guess that will help close to a million people close their eyes in peace.

The worst part is I can do nothing. N O T H I N G. All I do is watch the movie with Coke in my hand.. shed the odd tear...wipe it away seconds later and be angry. The feeling of being helpless is terrible. The feeling that not all of the world is in the palm of my hand, hurts. Do I sound pompous? I hardly feel that way. I cry because I cant do anything. I cry because the only person I take care of is myself.

The problems of the world are many. We are stilled worried about crossing the road when the lights are green.