Thursday, August 21, 2014

(Such) A long journey

What I started out as a review for the book Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry became a comparative study on stories included in the English text books in school, say class 5. Such a long journey indeed!

We had three, Main-course, Workbook and Reader. Later we called them Textbook, Workbook and Non-detail.

As I started reading the book, I thought this and other short stories and novels by Rohinton Mistry and Amitav Ghosh should be included in English readers or non-detail. This book particularly, even teaches you a few words like it should.
I guess I thought that because the author wanted me to, being suggestive with his tiny bits of mockery of the English reader that we normally use when little Roshan starts thinking of the objects from an English lifestyle that she learnt in her convent school. It reminded me of my earliest memory of such an experience.
Banana split. That's what a 12 year old girl wanted when her mother meets a man who tries to sell her an umbrella in The Umbrella Man. My English teacher took us through the story of how the girl's attention was only on the banana split even as she narrated what her mother was doing but my teacher never explained what it was. Perhaps she didn't know it herself. How was she to know when she probably studied the same books we did that were passed on by Anglo Catholic nuns in convent schools two generations ago. We don't eat banana any other way except as a fruit itself. However, all the time I was taught that story as a lesson, in what I fail to understand, I kept wondering how good it must taste. Only a few weeks ago,  I saw a strawberry and banana split. I didn't taste it. I don't like banana any other way except as a fruit itself. Now strawberry is another thing. I never tasted the real fruit till I came to London. 
The Umbrella Man was written by Roald Dahl. And it was very well written but the girl visits a dentist in London and both a dentist and London, and of course the banana split, were such abstract concepts to me.
A Visit to the Dentist by Ogden Nash was much loved because it was funny and the author's first name was funny and it ends by saying why do you visit a dentist if the whole point was to keep your teeth in shape so you don't have to visit a dentist.
Occasionally we had one or two Indian writers but no one who wrote so simply for children, to teach them English in a way to include it in their lives.
There once was a story called Games at Twilight by Anita Desai. It's so disgusting in its description that along side banana splits and funny dentist visits, Indian childhood seemed miserable even though the kids were playing the ever enjoyable game of hide and seek in twilight like we all did especially during power cuts in the summer holidays. In a course on Indian contemporary writing later in college, I read parts of her daughters' novel, The Inheritance of Loss. It talked about all the insecurities of an Indian man in England including the way he shit; makes me wonder what she really thought about Indians. I agree people have insecurities, some more than others. Especially if you come to another country where you are not a citizen it can be an intimidating experience. But Kiran Desai made such misery out of it. At least she didn't write about children or for children, only for winning awards in western countries that want to hear about the suffering third world which she never even lived in. 
There were also other stories by Amrita Pritam like The Stench of Kerosene - so strong so vivid. That was a story to tell even though it's a story of misery but told to help mould you into a better human being. 
Bit stories like that were rare and more like Mulakraj Anand who wrote about two milk maids, Hiro and Besanto who are selling milk to a leccroius store-owner who prefers to buy Besanto's milk. (The story does say Besanto's milk, such poor English or a disgusting pun intended, I know not).
Compared to these Indian writers, the way Amitav Ghosh describes characters and incidents is incredibly beautiful. I remember not long ago I said it must be a delight to be one of his characters, no matter how small. Rohinton Mistry is similar and there is also an added innocence and magic to his characters and stories and descriptions, may be because I've read only his stories on children and simple adults who have senseless insecurities and small blemishes like we all do.
It's sad that such writers who degrade the entire population of India get included in curriculum, but Rohinton Mistry is excluded because one of his characters from a community in India made a derogatory statement towards another community in India. Sure it's wrong to teach kids about degrading any community or to think it's OK to say such things but losing confidence by degrading yourself didn't help either! Games at Twilight just makes you hate your childhood.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Paris yet again

It was as lovely as I remembered and surprisingly less dirty. It was again booked only a week in advance just like my last trip to Paris. But this one was mostly because K needed to get a new passport because he travelled too much and I needed to renew my UK visa and then both of us needed to get new Schengen visas.
We flew in this time. Because Eurostar is way too expensive if you don't book ahead and we were getting flights through some points. The flight is so short that the trolley selling food barely made it through the length of the plane; (the flight to Amsterdam was even shorter with a 45min flying time).
It was a beautiful hotel we stayed in. Very pretty with decorative walls and traditional French interiors. They had a little room where the entire wall was used as a canvas for a pretty elaborate painting. Our room also had a little balcony and it was in a good location at a walking distance from arc de triumph and tour Eiffel but it's a little less close to the places we wanted to go. So we should have given it a little more thought before deciding where to stay. Next time.
On Friday we woke up late and lazy with no real plan till 6pm so we only left the hotel at lunch time and reached the canal on St Martin's. It was an incredibly hot day but there was some shade along the canal where we could sit. There is this cute little pizza place on one the parallel streets near by, where when you order you get a pink helium balloon with pink flamingo written on it. You take it with you and sit anywhere along the canal. A while later a guy comes on a cycle with your food and spots you with the help of the pink balloon. I think it's a brilliant idea and would be very successful anywhere, parks, canals, etc. And then when you want to let go your balloon, it flies away and eventually lands somewhere else creating more publicity for them too. It's sort of romantic if you were in college but is still a cute idea. So that's what we had for lunch.
And it was too hot to roam around anywhere so we came back to the hotel very soon.
At 6pm we reached Montmartre to go on a walking tour of the area by Sandemans. It was oh so tiring going up the hill of Montmartre on a hot sultry summer day with a guide who was very knowledgeable but with very poor English that she searched for words for every single sentence and tried to crack jokes but they were just lost. But it was a good tour and she knew her stuff so I did learn a lot of things and I'm so thoroughly impressed by an artist I had not heard of before, Suzanne Valadon.
After the tour we were walking around the great Montmartre. We had three hours before we went for a show at Moulin Rouge. We also needed to grab some grub. But since it's Montmartre where all the fancy restaurants are supposed to be, we thought we could fine dine. We walked and we walked along a street famous for its restaurants, yet we could not find any that we liked. We were tired after the walking tour and in the heat we walked until we were really tired and could walk no more or contain hunger. So we sat in a little restaurant like any other: tiny place with most of the seating on the street, clammy interiors with just one fan, which might have been comfortable on a pleasant day and cosy on a winter's night.
Before any one shoots off on a tangent about how I'm not allowed to crib about weather in Paris when I come from India, it was 37 degrees. In India we have fans everywhere and by default all fine dining places have air conditioning and we most certainly do not go on walking tours around hilly places at say 2-3 in the afternoon (that's the same as 6 in Paris because sun sets at 9). Also I'm from Visakhapatnam, I didn't know hot or child days, only sweaty summers and sweatery winters but all at reasonably pleasant temperatures.
So then after that terrible meal, actually I really don't remember what I ate, we made our way to Moulin Rouge. Now we were planning to get there 30 mins before the show. We got there 40 mins before to find an impossibly long queue of some 500 people! So we queued up too and we made friends with this really friendly couple from New Zealand, Mr and Mrs Smith. It's true! And now we also have a standing invitation to visit a farm house where they live and work in, if we can find them on Facebook. The queue was let inside at what I thought was when the show should start. It was however a wonderful show. I would recommend it highly but you also have to pay up highly for it.
The next day we woke up, hurried through breakfast and were ready to go on a street art tour of Paris, mostly Belleville. The tour guide was super excited to see two Indians on his tour, the last came 1.5 years ago. His excitement was slightly dampened to find out we live in London and were there because we did a London tour earlier, but we promised him we will tell all our Indian friends to go for it. He was extremely knowledgeable and a photographer himself, he conducts street art workshops as well.

While London Street art is more street and illegal, Paris street art was mostly commissioned but by famous street artists. So the quality was incredible and the locations were decent. London had more fun stories though, of people who had to paint quickly in the night. There were some interesting stories about famous people, like an anecdote of Shepard Fairey in Paris as well. And Space Invader pretty much invaded Paris everywhere. The tour was well worth it and a definite recommendation, especially for all my Indian friends. We had lunch after that at KFC, because it had air conditioning.
In the evening we strolled to Arc De Triumph and had a coffee on Champs Elysees doing nothing but people watching. And soon made our way to Montparnasse tower. The tallest building and the second tallest structure in Paris, after Eiffel. We dined on the 56th floor with beautiful views of Paris and an outstanding view of the Eiffel that twinkles for 5 mins on the dot of every hour. I was told to keep my expectations about the food low. Not knowing much about French cuisine and definitely not liking any fish, especially salmon, I enjoyed a salmon mini-starter which was amazing and had fish for main course as well. It probably wasn't as spectacular as the view, but definitely some good food. A special place for a special occasion.
We had one more day left in Paris but we decided to get out anyway. We went to the Palace of Versailles. It took us a few good hours just to see the palace and every single room open for viewing and we didn't even see the gardens. Walls and walls and rooms and rooms were used as canvases for massive large scale paintings that I previously thought only happened in chapels in Rome during renaissance when the greatest artists were asked to immortalise their work. While these artists are probably not that famous, the paintings were elaborate and depicted either stories from mythology or their king Louie XIV who is almost mythical in the glorification. It sort of makes sense why the French Revolution happened. There were smaller influences of others who came after that king, especially of Napoleon but none as grandeur. The star attraction was supposedly the hall of mirrors which was a let down; Salar Jung museum's chandelier room certainly beats it. I truly liked his daughters rooms. All so alike yet slightly different. My favourite was this long corridor with the busts and statutes of all the famous people I grew up learning from, L'Hospital (and I immediately thought of my high school math teacher), Voltaire and Laplace. It was a nice day out.

And then we came back to Paris only to pick up luggage from Gare due Nord left-luggage, which is so very useful but only if you had 9.50 Euros in coins in exact change. Finally, we jumped on a Eurostar that makes the distance fly by and Paris seem like a neighbouring city in England.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


It's interesting. By far the most interesting city I've been to. How is it that everyone in this city is so upright and so correct in this city. Of course, the only way to be always correct is to be truthfully tolerant about life, universe and everything else.
Isn't that a lovely thought! The only way to be 'right' is to have an opinion and yet accept all other opinions with equal grace unlike brooding over any opinion to be 'right'!
I digress.
I think this city is a lesson in timeless tolerance, a lesson in the understanding righteousness, a lesson in drawing your own lines and making sure you don't step on others' lines and ensuring they don't step on yours. The most incredible people Dutch are. It's like Dagny Taggart found John Galt!
So this attitude seeps into the entirety of the city. In its many canals where people just sit on boats and float away like the world doesn't matter to them. In its many streets where people bike away at a leisurely pace that the rest of the people, in cars or walking have to fit into. In many cafes and coffee shops and smart shops where people are hanging around like they're no tomorrow but different from London's tomorrow. If London were told there was no tomorrow it would race through the whole day trying to do every thing possible in one day, like it does every day anyway.
Amsterdam. I love it. I adore it. I can't fit into it. I'm too argumentative, too opinionated and too annoyed and constrained to ever belong to it. So I may never go back to it.


The language was fluent, almost like poetry at times. The content was similar. It's a Nigerian take on Nigeria and on America; a little on England as well but it was constrained to illegal immigration and not cultural observation.
The blatant statements with which the cultural differences are explained, subtly give you more insight into the Nigerian culture and how the political change had unveiled a richness in Nigeria for the public that was so unexpected in their life time.
May be it's too simplistic to say this: but if Lagos was replaced with Mumbai, Abuja with Delhi, Igbo with Gujarati, the political change with the 1991 opening up of the Indian markets, and changed all the names to traditionally common Indian names except Dike which would be a modernised Indian name, the Nigerian culture is not too different. There would be men who made a lot of money on corrupt real estate deals in Mumbai. Most of them would not have ethics and talk like Obinze's friends. And there would be people like Obinze who are so self righteous until they step over their own lines. There would be people like his dutiful wife. Then there would be people like Ifemelu. But then again, may be it's the same in Senegal or Mexico or Indonesia or Poland or Greece or Ireland or England or the United States of America; it's the degree of which that might differ, perhaps mostly based on the degree of implementation of the safety and healthcare.
Ifemelu. That's the story. It's about her middle class upright upbringing in Nigeria and her unexpected move to US. It's about her college sweetheart Obinze and his lost American dream. It's her transformation into a  blogger of her judgemental yet eye-opening blog, following her transformation into a Black person the minute she steps into US (and then again she stops being black once she lands in Lagos later). In the meantime Obinze tries his luck in England instead of being stuck in the comfortable yet depressingly pointless life in Nigeria. And then he comes back to Nigeria and hustles his way to become one among the rich, with a trophy wife that his righteousness almost despises. That's the story.
What binds Ifemelu and Obinze together is their thoughts that question and the tendency not to accept the dictates of a society and a drifting life style, irrespective of the country they live in. The action of course, not always following the thought, leaves sometimes one and most times the other, frustrated with status quo. And that is what the book is about. The frustrations of things that are and things that are newly discovered and things that should have been discovered. The frustrations of what life is and what you desired it to be. Sometimes it can be a bit whiny but very honest nonetheless.
The book ends in a happy tone though it doesn't really matter what the ending is because it was never about a story anyway.
If you are looking for an inside view of Nigeria this book doesn't help much. Neither does it help to look for the point of view of a black person in US or an illegal black immigrant in the UK. But if you are looking for a book where the author connects with you at a very personal level and speaks to you directly in a very matter of fact tone and stating the obvious but in a deeply endearing manner, occasionally lyrical, occasionally annoying, always transparent, this one's for you. And of course, if you are a film maker, this is one is perfect for you.