Blog: His Dark Materials

DQai9u6VQAA9B5UI picked up this intimidating tome this morning. 1102 pages. The font is not generous. I am not sure how I am going to hold it in my hands for long hours. Kindle has spoiled me. But I have decided to end my year with this book, which I have already begun to love. I think I will write a couple of blogs about His Dark Materials. However, I want to share this modest, beautiful preface with you.

I began to write this novel with little sense of the plot, even less notion of the theme, and only the vaguest idea of the characters. I’m convinced that that’s the way to do it. I tried to work out the plan of a novel once, when I was young, ahead of writing it. It was an excellent plan. It took me months and covered page after page, and in the end I was so fed up with the damn thing I threw it away and started a quite different novel with no preparation at all, which came out much better. I suppose these things are partly temperamental; I know that some excellent writers make a great thing of planning every book before they write it; but it doesn’t work for me.

One thing such a technique prevents is what I think every long book must have if I’m not to go mad writing it, and that’s the element of surprise. I had no idea what Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear, would say when Lyra first came face to face with him. His vulnerability to strong drink was a huge surprise. I knew there was going to be a boy called Will, but his reason for running away and thus meeting Lyra was a complete mystery to me until it happened. As for Lee Scoresby, I was as ignorant of his existence as the gyptians themselves the sentence before he turned up. These surprises are pleasant and exciting; they feel like a kind of reward. If I knew they were coming I wouldn’t enjoy them at all.

In the first sentence above, I mentioned something I called the theme. By that I mean what the book is about, in some fundamental sense. I’ve heard that some writers decide on a theme first, and then make up some characters and a plot to exemplify it. They seem to get on all right, but again, it wouldn’t work for me. A book, especially a long book like His Dark Materials, has to have some sort of theme, or else you’ll be working for a long time (this story took me seven years) in a moral vacuum. But that doesn’t mean you have to decide what the theme is. If you’re working as seriously as you know how to, for a matter of years, then a theme will emerge whether you want it to or not. It’ll be something you think very important. It might be the most important thing you know. Once you know what it is, you can shape the story more precisely to help it show up, but it’s a mistake to rely on the theme to lead the story for you. I think I did that in a couple of places in this book, and it’s the worse for it. But there we are, we’re never too old to learn. Next time I shall remember: the story should lead, and the theme will emerge in its own time and its own way. Besides, if you want to write something perfect, write a haiku. Anything longer is bound to have a few passages that don’t work as well as they might.

So here is a story that was the best I could do at the time, written with all the power and all the love I had, about the things I think most important in the world. I think it was worth writing. I hope you think it’s worth reading.

— Philip Pullman
Courtesy: Random House

This note is comforting for a lot of reasons. Writing terrifies and liberates me. Before I hit the ‘publish’ button every time, I pose some questions to myself: Why did I write this? Why should anybody read this? What makes me think that this piece is worthy? Did I prepare well? Am I just rambling? Is my grammar okay? Are my sentences too short? Just the sort of questions which fan my insecurity. But I muster the courage and publish the posts because I have something — just a whisker — to share, and I want to say it in the way I know.

I love Pullman’s note even more, for I don’t ever scheme my stories; that has made me feel small. I have never known the beginning and the end. I have always allowed my writing to lead me, surprising myself on my way. Maybe, that’s why I think that my stories write themselves and that I am their instrument. I can never chase and pin down my thoughts if I work backward. Maybe, that was why I couldn’t survive in journalism, for my temperament supplied my words.

Sometimes, writing feels like a trance. Sometimes, it’s like abusing substance. Sometimes, it’s like inflicting pain on myself. Sometimes, it’s like lifting weights. Sometimes, it’s like walking an unruly dog. Sometimes, it’s like communicating with the beyond. Sometimes, it’s like the last ray of the evening sun. But, it’s always, always liberating.

PS: I thought Pullman’s note might motivate you or hurl a pebble in your pond, if the idea of writing a book is in the offing. 🙂

What do you think of this preface? What are your thoughts?

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

“Why do we smile? Why do we laugh? Why do we feel alone? Why are we sad and confused? Why do we read poetry? Why do we cry when we see a painting? Why is there a riot in the heart when we love? Why do we feel shame? What is that thing in the pit of your stomach called desire?”

— Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

12000020The secrets of the universe present themselves in their own time. They don’t pander to our hurry which perhaps doesn’t exist. So we wait. While we wait, we can learn to smile.

The secrets of the universe may appear ridiculous when they unveil themselves. They are not what we think. Most times, they are beyond our imagination. We should not be mad at them for being different. We can only laugh at our expectations.

The secrets of the universe don’t have to strip themselves to make us believe that we are a part of this sublime universe. When we are the secrets and the universe in some way, we don’t have to feel alone and sad and confused and ashamed. We are not our doubts. We are not our fears. We are our hope. We are needed and loved by this universe.

Maybe, the secrets of the universe should never be divulged because we can continue to look for them in poetry and paintings and stories and music and… people. Let the secrets make us cry. Let them create riots in our hearts. Let them light the lamps of kind desires to illuminate our dark corridors. Let them be elusive. Let them be obstinate. Let them come. Let them go. Let our quest never end. Let us never cease to believe, create, and accept.

The secrets of the universe are meant to be our beacons.

Book Review: Ikigai

Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honourable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

— Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

35610900How do I understand how I stumbled upon three books on discovering life’s meaning when I am between jobs?

I read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive a couple of months ago, and I finished Héctor García and Francesc Miralles’ Ikigai this evening. They all are unlike many inspirational speakers, who hire ghost writers, and whose books fill our heads with insecurity and inadequacy. The authors of all the three books take me on a road that is free of traffic and pollution. The road is bordered by enormous trees and when I walk slowly with the authors, I can hear the birds’s songs. They chirp, “Discover your life’s meaning in your own time. It’s okay. There is no hurry.”

Ikigai is my reason for being. What do I want to do with this wild, wild thing called life? Mary Oliver asked that question, didn’t she? But Ikigai is not about the question that recruiters pose — Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Oh! How I wish I could make them understand the beauty and agony of impermanence, how I wish I could laugh at the naivety of that question, how I wish I could tell them that I see myself loving my family more, reading more books, making more Zen-doodles, writing more, lifting more weights, bicycling more, discovering more hobbies, helping more animals, meditating more, relating more stories, eating well, sleeping for 7.5 hours, drinking three litres of water a day, eating more fruits, watching stars and sunsets and moonbeams, meeting more strangers, listening more to friends, smiling more, hugging more, moving more, collecting more feathers, observing more synchronicities, writing letters, being more vulnerable, being more antifragile, boarding more planes and buses and trains, taking more deep breaths…

Oh! How I wish this list could never end!

How I wish I could tell them that that is my Ikigai!

The book Ikigai asks me to take life one day at a time and to invest time and love in what illuminates my soul. There are urgent things like money and financial security; the urgent things will be heard if the important things are addressed. It might sound like a reductionist’s idea, it might sound absurd to take one step at a time, but time is relative, isn’t it?

Life will slow down and reach me like waves, one after the other, when I slow down, when I pause, when I listen. That is my Ikigai. That is enough.

One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”

— Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl



Blog: My November in Books

23319015_1530041427088493_4897820902453455231_nI have been reading and writing a lot these days — one of the greatest perks of being between jobs. Despite being desperate to be employed again, I am enjoying this time. Loads of books. Loads of blog-hopping. Loads of books again. No complaints at all. 🙂 I am practically broke, but how can I complain when books are my magic carpet! And that reminds me of this passage from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.

This is how my November looked in books:

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris, Sam Taylor (Contributor) – Five Stars
Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green – Five Stars
Sunrise, Sunset: 52 Weeks of Awe & Gratitude by Kim Weiss – Three Stars
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay – Five Stars
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman – Five Stars
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling – Three Stars

Undelivered Letters by J. Alchem – Two Stars
I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi – Five Stars
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – Five Stars
Maidless in Mumbai by Payal Kapadia – 3.5 Stars
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, Michael Hofmann (Translator) – Five Stars
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome – Five Stars

Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair by William Evans – Three Stars
Sea of Strangers by Lang Leav – Three Stars
The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur – Three Stars
Vertigo: There Is a Secret Written in the Stars and in the Mountains by Analog De Leon – Two Stars

Children’s Literature:
Ten Cents a Pound by Nhung Tran-Davies, Josée Bisaillon (Illustrator) – Five Stars
If a Horse Had Words by Kelly Cooper, Lucy Eldridge (Illustrator) – Five Stars
Polar Bear Postman by Seigo Kijima – Five Stars
Happy Birthday! by Mamoru Suzuki – Five Stars
Kuma-Kuma Chan’s Travels by Kazue Takahashi – Five Stars
The Snowbear by Sean Taylor, Claire Alexander (Illustrator) – Five Stars

YA Fiction:
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green – Five Stars
The Temptation of Adam by Dave Connis – Three Stars
The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli – Four Stars

21740031_1482000091892627_2288840640534506545_nI am channelising my inner Sybill Trelawney to see if a job offer is on its way, and I have even asked the centaurs to read the stars for me. I hope I would hear from them soon, and I am curious to know how my reading and writing pattern would evolve after I start a full-time job. In spite of the anxieties, I am asking myself to enjoy this precious time.

And, and, and may your December be filled with light moments and bright memories. 🙂

How did your November go? What was your favourite read? What do you recommend for me?

Images courtesy: Buddha Doodles

Blog: An Author Judges A Reader

Image from here.

I recently reviewed a poetry which I borrowed from Netgalley. I usually request Children’s Literature, Young Adult Fiction, and Poetry from them. Also, I request books which I can’t get in India — books which are expensive, books which are not available.

Lately, I have stopped asking for Poetry, because I realised that I am tired of reading poems written by neo-poets whose I’s are i’s. I am tired of reading one-liners which are packaged as poems. I am tired of reading about men who call their women oceans and waves. I am tired of reading about women who pine for their lovers. I am trying hard to not sound patronising here, but it’s just me after OD’ing on such poems.

For I admit that I haven’t read great poems — I do not know what a great poem is — I understood that it’s not fair on my part to request Poetry when I know they are only going to irk me. However, a poetry which I had requested a long time ago was lying in my mailbox, and I decided to review.

The book was about 150 pages long and had a gorgeous, gorgeous cover and some surreal illustrations. The poems were still cold for me. They didn’t bring me back to the present nor did they send me into a spiral of introspection. The poems were just there and I wished they were better. (In truth, I have copied and pasted this paragraph from my Goodreads review itself.)

I had also quoted a poem, which was just one line long and which was broken into a couple of lines. I mentioned that such poems didn’t move me.

Is it wrong to say that a piece of artwork didn’t give me feelings? Do you think I should have read great poets to say that?

This morning, I woke up to a personal message on Goodreads from the author. For obvious reasons, I am not revealing any information about the author and the book. However, the author’s message left me flummoxed.

From the message, I understand that the book is the author’s first one, and that there had been suggestions from the publishers to change some aspects on how the poems were presented. I nodded as I read that. I could really see the pressure that was imposed upon the author.

The author added that it’s hard to take tough reviews. I really wanted to empathise. I didn’t enjoy the work, but I can see how a creator would be shattered to receive two-stars. I understand. I really do.

But. There came a suggestion which didn’t sit with me. The author said that if I happen to read the book and get a different view of the allegory and the deeper layers, then the author would love an update on the number of stars I had offered. Despite telling me that there’s work to do, the author hoped that I would find three-stars worth of value in the book when I reread.

I woke up to that message and I couldn’t shrug off the underlying sneer in that. After I read it a couple of times, what I understood was, “Thank you for the review. But I think you didn’t understand the allegory and how beautifully layered and profound the book was. As you didn’t see the book for what it is, I suggest you read it again. When you reread, remember to wear those perfect, scratch-proof literary glasses!”

The message rang in my ears that way. An insult to a reader’s intelligence. While I am trying not to take it personal, I detest how an author could believe that the reader had given two-stars because the reader was not bright enough to catch all the metaphors, and that a reread had to be prescribed to fix the reader’s myopic vision.

Even on Goodreads, I don’t expend my energy to explain why a book didn’t work for me. Even if I am supposed to review a book, I pick some soft words from my vocabulary to say that the book was not for me. Above all, if a book is available on Netgalley, it is exposed to all sorts of feedback. Since I believe that my criticism was constructive, I couldn’t fathom why I was judged as a reader.

I have decided not to respond to the author; I don’t want to have a conversation, lest it would turn bitter. But I wish authors were open to honest feedback, instead of asking the readers to up their game. Not fair. Not fair at all.

As I wrote this blog, I was reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s interview published by Lithub.

I don’t really like to work with literary allusions very much. I never want to be in a position where I’m saying, “You’ve got to read a lot of other stuff” or “You’ve got to have had a good education in literature to fully appreciate what I’m doing.” . . . I actually dislike, more than many people, working through literary allusion. I just feel that there’s something a bit snobbish or elitist about that. I don’t like it as a reader, when I’m reading something. It’s not just the elitism of it; it jolts me out of the mode in which I’m reading. I’ve immersed myself in the world and then when the light goes on I’m supposed to be making some kind of literary comparison to another text. I find I’m pulled out of my kind of fictional world, I’m asked to use my brain in a different kind of way. I don’t like that.

To forget the message I received this morning, I had to read this poem. 🙂

Our new dog, named for the beloved poet,
ate a book which unfortunately we had
left unguarded.
Fortunately it was the Bhagavad Gita,
of which many copies are available.
Every day now, as Percy grows
into the beauty of his life, we touch
his wild, curly head and say,
“Oh, wisest of little dogs.”

Percy from Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs

Book Review: Perfect Eight

8525469I stumbled upon Reema Moudgil’s Facebook page Unboxed Writers a couple of years ago, and wrote to her like a shy squirrel, asking if she would like to feature one of my blogs in her website. She readily agreed, and since then, like a friend who secretly sends her artworks to media houses to have those published, she visits my blogs on her own, and publishes my stories in her website. Believe me. Such people exist!

Unboxed Writers is a central repository of inspiring, moving stories. (My stories are there too. Ideally, I shouldn’t be bragging much all right.) 🙂 But I love their stories.

A long time after I discovered the page, I learned that Reema Moudgil had written a book called Perfect Eight. I don’t remember when I bought it, but it was languishing in my little library for a while. Why I did not go to the book for so long is a mystery that I would never resolve.

I felt livid when I started reading Reema Moudgil’s Perfect Eight. I was smothered by the unfairness of the world. A beautiful, poetic book like Perfect Eight just has 17 ratings on Goodreads, when books which don’t really talk to our hearts garner soaring attention. But that’s how life works, doesn’t it? It’s not always just.

What can a reader like me do to honour the deserving books? Write about it.

Perfect Eight has a life of its own. The protagonist — whose name I choose not to reveal — stayed with me for a couple of days, relating her life. Sometimes, her presence felt ghostly, sometimes friendly, sometimes depressing, and sometimes she exuded hope and peace. I adored her company.

When she finished narrating her story, my hands pierced through the air, and searched for her. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to tell her that she is loved and cherished. I wanted to tell her that she fought, and that her spirit is invincible.

She had no more words to offer, but I still feel her presence deep inside my soul.

Her mother bears the brunt of the Indo-Pak Partition. She is uprooted from Lahore, thrown into India, where she travels from one place to another, not feeling the sense of belonging anywhere. Her father — an inspiring idealist, a true worshipper of life, a smile-dealer, an eternal optimist — tries to keep their family happy despite all the adversities.

And their only daughter sees beyond what is apparent. She understands the displacement that has wounded her mother. She revels in the unconditional love of her father, and his songs and poetry and wit.

But she is lovelorn in her own ways. Samir. The annoying-yet-lovable Samir handles her heart with reckless abandon. She is vulnerable, and that makes her more beautiful. I won’t ask her to be any other way.

The atmosphere is thick. Indo-Pak Partition. 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots. Demolition of the Babri Masjid. Maybe, it has to be thick, and laden with conflicts, for it is a true reflection of the battles which take place in her.

She bleeds all her life; she recovers like all of us.

Perfect Eight poses important questions on home, love, war, violence, passion, trust, fear… It allows me to meditate, as I travel along with the protagonist, from Patiala to Delhi to Bangalore to Ambrosa, from darkness to hope to light to death to rebirth, forming a perfect eight in life. Just when I begin to think that I need answers, it offers. I want to keep them safe. I would certainly go back to them.

Sometimes, I sat alone on my terrace to watch kites of the deepest pinks, blues and greens and pet pigeons being guided back home with flailing arms, strange, guttural, human-pigeon noises. I wished I could fly too. Somewhere. With someone. To someone.

‘This island is a miracle. It moves from one place to another but no one can see it moving,’ Inder uncle told me. I looked at the island and it looked at me. It was my mirror image. I knew then that, one day, I would move away to a place no one ever expected me to reach. The thought made everything else easier to bear.

The home town, I realise, is a memory of smells that trigger off unbearable nostalgia and unbearable joy, a place too small in retrospect but also the incubator of dreams, a womb of safety, a well-thumbed album of mohallas, familiar faces that smile at you, little lanes you will never be lost in, small shops with fading signboards and beloved bazaars fraying at the edges.

You cannot escape from life. It won’t let you escape. It will find you. And when it does you can either stay or you can run a few more miles till it finds you again. Choose. You tried to hide. To run. Always. What do you fear so much? When you learn to trust, you will learn to live.

Reema Moudgil has given us a heroine, who is incredibly alive. She is so alive that she often worries that she is not living enough, that she is not trusting enough, that she is not loving enough.

Now I must tell her that she is perfect.

She is as perfect as the eight that the silver road at Ambrosa makes. Walking along the eight might bring her back to where she started, but each new round would make her wiser, stronger, braver. So it doesn’t matter if she is taking the same path again. When she embraces her losses and pain, when she sheds her apprehensions, when she takes each step with the belief that she is a new person at every dawn, then every round on the same path is new, and full of possibilities.

Like those occasional marbles on a gravel path.

(FAO bloggers who love diverse reads: This book is written for you!)

Blog: The Collar Conundrum

Vegetable Bhajiya02
Bajji (Image from here)

The vet tries to breathe fear into me; he uses phrases which a small-brained bear like me struggle to understand. He says, “Ear haematoma.” The little voice in my head says that he is talking about the swelling in Anu Boo’s ears.

Father has given a name to the inflammation too. Bajji. That’s my father for you. His levity is endearing and infamous.

“It’s not fatal,” the vet breaks my reverie. Of course, it’s not. The lump has to be broken, the incision has to be sutured, and Anu Boo has to wear an Elizabethan Collar until the wound heals. I know the drill because I put Calvin through the same irksome procedure. “But wait! Maybe, we can give Anu Boo some more time since she is a mongrel. Let me give her a couple of shots and put her on some pills and syrup and ear drops. Maybe, she will recover without surgical intervention because mongrels can fight.” The vet is unlike other doctors who are fond of scalpels. I like him.

Queen Elizabeth I (1538-1603) in Old Age, c_1610 (oil on panel), English School, (17th century) Corsham Court, Wiltshire
Queen Elizabeth I (Image from here)

Anu Boo and I return home after an eventful auto ride when boys laughed at Anu Boo and women squealed. Anu Boo runs into the house, her collar collides with the door, and she feels disoriented. She will take a while to understand that her space is expanded now. Mother sighs. She knows the drill too. The Elizabethan Collar is going to make everything difficult for Anu Boo. Imagine carrying a cone around your head for 10 days. AK wonders how Queen Elizabeth wore it. That man can really make me laugh.

Mother and I masticate a couple of bland dosai while Anu Boo sits at our heels and drools. She loves everything that she shouldn’t eat. Mother pushes another piece of dosai into her mouth when the question strikes her. “She looks like a speaker, doesn’t she?” Mother is usually sombre; it’s unlike her to crack a joke. I want to hug that moment. “You mean a bullhorn, ma?” She is not sure what that is, but she is certain that Anu Boo reminds her of a speaker. “But ma, she looks like a table lamp. That’s how dogs look when they wear E-collars.” She shakes her head, not convinced.


Anu Boo looks at me and then at Mother. She doesn’t want us to debate but just drop a piece of dosai down for her. Mother, with her gaze fixed on Anu Boo, starts laughing.

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Anu Boo

Her laughter is a precious sound from my childhood. The kind of laughter that rises from her stomach, collects the contents of her heart, escapes her mouth, and fills the November air. The kind of laughter that didn’t ring for several years.

When that laughter falls on the dining table and splashes on our faces, it gives Mother a respite from Clinical Depression and Arthritis and Diabetes, it tends to my painful memories, removes anxieties about my future, and it bridges the gulf between us. The laughter then becomes a smile, an empty yet content silence envelops us. We heave a sigh of relief. Like dogs.

Where there was her laughter, there are tears now. Shy, happy tears.

The collar conundrum, quite like ‘the dress’ quandary, is hard to solve.

For once, I love an unresolved dispute.

(I intended to publish this post in my other blog The Zennish Panda, where I capture non-bookish thoughts. But I thought of using this post as a bait prelude to introduce that blog. I write teeny-weeny posts there and be my best melodramatic self. 😉 If you are okay about that, we shall meet there too. Thank you!)