Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Several things got together over the past year or so, to push me towards reading more Hindi. It started with me buying a bunch of novels by Vrindavanlal Varma about 2 years back, but it really snowballed into a huge thing about 4 months back, when I picked up some thrillers by Surender Mohan Pathak in response to a discussion with friends. From there it went to several other pulp writers, and thence to poetry by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. And now the situation is that I hardly get the time to read anything in English.

It's turned out to be easier than expected. My Hindi reading speed was faster than the average thirtyish software yuppie anyway because we've been taking a Hindi newspaper at home for a long time and I used to follow at least the jokes and corny articles in it regularly. But it's taken barely ten books to get to a sustainable sort of reading speed, enough to follow the story while picking up the vocabulary where required. I would seriously think of reading a Hindi book now for pleasure, something I couldn't have dreamed of only 6 months back.

So does it feel any different? Reading Dinkar and Vrindavanlal Varma takes me back to my school days when we had excerpts of poems and stories in our text books. Some parts strike chords, some have nice wordplay or descriptions. They're nice reads, yes. The Dinkar poetry is especially nice at times.

But it's been the pulp stuff that has really hammered home that this is *my* language, with bits that ring true and that use words that I would never identify with in an English book. There's this line in a book : Woh chaar gilaas aur lota bhar ke paani le kar aaya. Meaning, he brought over four glasses and a lota full of water. I can't think of any exact english word for lota. And more importantly, I don't want to. When I sat down to dinner with my family, we used a lota to drink water out of. There are a dozen places in my life where I've used this vessel. [Please, I know what you are going to think at this point. Let's stick to the topic. Thank you.] Calling it a jug takes away all those associations.

There are dozens of other minor things in the books. What I'm trying to say is that for a guy who's grown up in India and who speaks Hindi as his mother tongue, good fiction in Hindi is going to have a resonance that no other language can have. Replace Hindi with your mother tongue if it's different. You can relate to the places, incidents, people, descriptions, in a way that you simply cannot, with Sidney Sheldon or Dan Brown or any of the English stuff. I'd say that even Indian writers, writing in English about folks in India, cannot give you the feel that Hindi can.

It's well worth the effort to practice reading in it, to pick up books that look interesting - not necessarily very difficult works - and struggle through the first few. It's only the beginning that's difficult. But the rewards are worth it. Try kar ke dekho...

Monday, October 20, 2008

A few more small Bangalore experiences...

"Corporates" are a different kind of creature here. Our team went to play Paintball a few weeks back, and the instructor was telling us, "these guns have been modified to fire with a little less force, because we have mostly corporates here as customers, and they don't like it when it hurts." Every hotel worth its salt (excuse the pun) has "special offers for corporate parties." When we - my office gang - go to a movie, we're offered special "corporate packages". All these are basically offers for people who are on expense account but must not be asked to take any pains or suffer the tiniest discomfort. Something tells me investment bankers were the first 'corporates', before us IT folks went that way.


Went to a lovely Udupi place called Mahalaxmi Tiffin Room over the weekend. It's close to National College, in the Basavanagudi area, in case you're interested. They serve something called a Kali Dosa, which is worth going all that way for. There's no menu and no billboard, so the only way one would know they serve it (the way I did), is if a local resident has raved about it to one (the way my boss did, to me). Go there, enjoy it.

On a related note, my wife's now mortally terrified of going to Mavalli Tiffin Room - the famous MTR - because, get this, they have food that's TOO delicious. After a recent excursion at lunch time, her exact words were, "Badhiya khaana khilaa khilaa kar maartey hai yeh log. Ban kar dena chaahiye inhey." it was just coincidence that they happened to be serving both Pongal and Bisibelebath in that same meal - each of these are dishes my wife usually eats as a complete meal.

Somehow a lot of people who don't belong to Bangalore - Delhiites, Puneites, Mumbaikars - have zero interest in going to these traditional parts of the city. Part of the story is that most new-generation types aren't interested in the traditional parts of their own cities, either. Finding your way around the old city anywhere can be quite a chore. But I think it's also to do with the Americanization of the average IT guy in Bangalore - he's even less likely to be interested in going into tiny places full of lungi-clad uncles eating dosas. Comments?


The one item that comes into discussion every single day, in 90% of the conversations with friends and coworkers, is buying a house. Several times I'm the one bringing up the topic. Even though committing to paying a huge loan for years on end gives me the jitters, somehow I can't get the inevitable step out of my head. It's made worse because all my colleagues who shifted to Bangalore in recent times are searching for places to buy - some of them have houses in their own places, but they've looking here, too, either as investment or just to have another base. Perhaps it's part of the Bangalore effect.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

So I'm reading this book in the cab as I ride to work, and the bookmark I use is something I got from Landmark, with an ad for a social networking site on one side. The ad shows messages from three hip, young folks :

Jay: Hey! Nice book u r reading.

Saurabh: How would u rate dis book?

Priyanka: Can I borrow it after u r done?

The language they use, however, along with the fashion sense they display in their photos, (along with the reactions of my colleagues to the book) makes me think they would really not want to read the book I'm reading: Sanchayita, a selection of poetry by Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'. :)

PS. My blog feels kind of dirty for having SMS lingo on it, even in passing...

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

By now my wife's fairly used to my smartassery. She's also seen some of my pigheadedness when chasing an idea. What she finds hard to handle is those two qualities together.
Consider last night.
My body was aching from an exercise session and we'd decided to go to bed early. My wife was reading a book while I tried to go to sleep. As is usual in this situation, I and the missus were exchanging random thoughts, and she happened to mention Sodexho Food coupons at the same time as I mentioned Landmark.
For the few who don't know what Sodexho coupons are, they're a way for companies to give you tax-free money, as long as you only use it for food/beverages. Only grocery stores and restaurant take them instead of money, and only when you're actually buying food.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could use Sodexho coupons to buy stuff from Landmark", I mused. She kind-of nodded, aware that in such a situation, the whole stack of coupons would be gone before she even saw 'em.
I kept on musing. Pretty soon I was into territory that my wife would rather I stayed away from.
"Waisey, I can think of one thing you could buy from Landmark with Sodexhos."
"Manoj Kumar's Roti."
She clucked with exasperation.
"Then there's Andaaz."
"Stop that."
But I couldn't, of course.
"Bheja Fry," she said with the air of ending the conversation.
"Kandaa Pohe, though the name's changed to something else now."
"Never heard of it."
I was silent for a long time. Wife thought I was asleep and went back to reading.
Ten minutes later...
"Garam Masala."
Another silence.
"SHUT UP. I'm going to sleep now." She turned off the light and covered her head with the blanket.
Half an hour later, or was it more? I was still drifting along movie names...
"OOOF!" Even when administered by a sleepy wife, shoves can hurt.
"And NOT A WORD out of you, if you want to sleep in this room!"

Monday, June 09, 2008

It's become very rare in recent times for me to see a book I haven't heard of before and buy it - if I see a new book, I prefer to go back to the net, read reviews, ponder over it for a bit, then decide whether it's worth it.

A couple of weeks, back, though, I bought a book - first-hand - that I hadn't heard of before. Not only was the book new, I'd never heard of the publisher either. This book was The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction.

This was a translated collection of stories and novellas by popular 'pulp' writers in Tamil, along with reproductions of book covers and some Q&A sessions answered by these same popular writers. Genres included romance, sci-fi, thrillers, and lots of detective fiction. But what sold me at first sight was the blurb on the back cover:


Who wouldn't want to buy a book like that? :)

I bought it and devoured the book in about 4 days. The stories are fairly good, though necessarily short and abruptly-ended. The whole thing leaves you wanting more - if only Blaft would publish full-length novels by these guys, showcasing their skill better. I for one would jump to buy anything by Indra Sounder Rajan or Pattukkottai Prabakar, based on their plotlines and genres as revealed by this book.

The translation is all done by one person, Pritham Chakravarthy, which means that while the quality is good, there's a sense of sameness around the stories, as if they were all written by one person. Not that there's anything wrong with that person - quirks of Tamil street language do come through. Did you know that 'Nashik Paper' is Tamil slang for money, because the Indian current printing press is in Nashik?

In an ideal world, this would be the beginning of a trend. Why do the Indian translation publishers (Katha and their ilk) focus on the literary fiction alone? How many more copies would they sell, and how many more people would be interested, in reading fun, fast, quirky stuff like this? Every reader of Indian-language fiction I know reads a lot of pulp stuff - whether as serialized novels in newspapers, or stories in Manohar Kahaniyan, or even the actual pulp-paper printed Surendra Mohan Pathak books - vastly more than they read serious lit stuff. It's true for *every* Indian language, not just Hindi or Tamil.

Blaft, here's a deal - if you'll publish more translated pulp fiction, I'll be first in line to buy it. If it's in affordable editions, I'll even get copies for my friends. Heck, if you're interested, I'll even join in and translate Hindi pulp for you - how's that?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Paul Graham posts a good essay on his site, about the character of cities. Reading through it makes me want to go live in Berkeley right now. After reading this, I began to think about what characters we could assign to Indian cities. Delhi would, as far as I know, be all about connections and power, the way Graham describes Washington D.C.. Mumbai's character would have been like New York - all about Money - except that the film industry is there, too, so being big in that industry becomes a viable substitute for money for most. No doubt you folks could explain the characters of a dozen other India cities.

So where does that leave Bangalore? As my recent posts indicate, I wasn't too impressed initially by the place - a lazy sort of local population coupled with many, many people anxious to earn and spend money in vapid interests. Then, the other day (at a Mall's food court, if you must know), it came to me. This place is like a frontier town, like the Wild West, or a prospecting town like the Klondike. Making it big is the priority here for most. Skimming off their shares from these get-rich-quickers is the priority for a darker underbelly, whose form changes in every frontier town but who remain the same sort of people. There's the simpler, easygoing people who lived in the area before some outsourcer mined gold here and started the rush. There are the million saloons - or should I call them Malls and North Indian Restaurants - which are almost entirely frequented by these outsiders, springing up shiny and overpriced among the smaller sedate watering holes for the natives.

So what are they prospecting for? What is this the frontier for? Money, perhaps, or a chance to shine, or the good life. Perhaps they all bring their dreams with them, whatever they wanted in their own towns, and try to find them here. The smell of this city is too varied, too mixed up, too fresh, to have one single flavour yet.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Moving into a new place is like sleeping on a new coir mattress - It looks and feels generally great, but there are tiny coconut fibres poking you where you least suspect it. The right thing to do, of course, would be to pull out those fibres, or else ignore them, and enjoy sleeping on the new mattress. That's not how people work, though.

Went to an office party last week. It was at an amusement arcade, with bowling and beer and games. The games weren't free. Someone called me over to join in a Foosball game. He inserted tokens into the system and we began, four of us. After the first goal, we realized that the game would be over once all five available balls were eaten by the game, and we stole menu cards from nearby tables and blocked the goal-holes with them. "If it hits the menu card, we'll consider it a goal. We could go on playing all evening this way!" Someone said. At this the guy who'd bought the tokens said,"There's no need to be this kanjoos - a game is just 40 bucks, man! We'll just get more tokens..."

Suddenly my interest in the game had vanished. For some reason the number 40 haunted me. I went through the rest of the evening in a blue funk, doing miserably at bowling and downing a Sprite without tasting it. Somehow, though, I couldn't figure out the reason.

It came to me much later that night. It was all about this time my dabbawala had quit on me...

Towards the end of my first semester of college, someone pulled down a Mosque in UP, and suddenly everyone was rioting. My dabbawala, who used to bring me my lunch and dinner from across the city, decided to stop operations suddenly. With curfew in the town, I couldn't get out of my room to eat. For a while, I starved, surviving on Tomatoes and Fruit Bread.

At this time, a classmate who lived in the same colony took me to this nice Andhra lady nearby who made meals for a small number of students. "Aunty, can't you take on just one more person?"

Aunty thought a bit. "I could give you a dabba in the afternoons, I think. Some of my boys only take dabbas in the evening, so it's possible in the afternoon."

I agreed enthusiastically. "I need it only for a few days, I think. My normal dabbawala should be back once the riots are over." (which never happened, by the way. I wound up taking a dabba from this aunty during all the remaining years of college. )

"No problem," she said. "Pay me for the week in advance. It's eight rupees a meal, so for 5 meals, that will be 40 Rupees."

I went through my pockets and gave her the money. It was expensive - my older dabbawala used to charge me 5 Rupees a meal. But I had no option right now.

Half an hour later, I bought my empty dabba, had her fill it, and went back to my first proper meal in ages. I can still remember what it tasted like. It was worth paying so much for it - it tasted home cooked.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I've been in Bangalore for about 3 weeks now, so it's time for the inevitable "First impressions" post. Here we go.

1. Any Taxiwalla - be it a taxi from the hotel or the office cab, has a mobile phone, supposedly so you can call him up if he's late. In practice, though, if you're late and you call him, there's only one catch-all explanation: "Junction par hoon, sir", followed by "Lane ke andar turn kara raha hoon." Never mind that he actually trundles into the parking about half an hour after he's "turned into the lane", or that he never really says which junction he's at. I had the illuminating experience of my taxiwalla answering a phone from his sister, and replying to her with a cheerful "Junction par hoon", when he'd only just picked me up from the office and there was atleast a 20 minute drive ahead before we reached the hotel.

2. When you drive along any of the main roads, you inevitably cross some shops that look interesting - Chocolate shops and Bakeries for me, and clothes shops for my wife. Bangalore roads and traffic, however, conspire to make sure you can never stop suddenly while driving. There are no gaps in the traffic to ease into and stop, there's no vehicles parked anywhere nearby where you can add you own mount. And if the shop happens to be on the other side of the road, it would mean a kilometre's drive ahead searching for a break in the divider, so you just give up right there.

3. Continuing from the last one, there are waaaayy more interesting shops here in Bangalore than there were in Pune.

4. Nearly all of the out-of-towners who arrive here have no interest whatsoever in learning about the place, the language, the food, or the sights. I suppose that's true for any place, which is why you have Maharashtra Mandals in every city, and India Clubs in every town in the Bay Area. Still, it's a little disheartening to hear Hindi-speaking folks dismiss Andhra/Udipi/Kerala restaurants entirely and focus on finding 'authentic' Punjabi food, and to find out that none of my friends had heard of MTR, Kunda, or Girish Kasaravalli. But again, maybe that's just me.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

So I've shifted.

To Bangalore, to a product company.

Yes, me and my wife. My parents are in Pune.

Yes, we've found a flat to stay in.

Yes, we like the city so far.

Oh yes, it is expensive, but there are small shops where you get affordable stuff, if you look.

Yep, I have some friends and relatives here.

No, I don't know how long I'll stay here.

Just a minute, let me put another rupee coin in.

Well, I expect to make a simple life here for myself. Naive hope, I know. I want to make time for reading and writing and exercise and talking and relaxing and generally feeling like I know where my life is headed.

Yeah? Ha ha ha, I know, that last one was a bit much.

All right then, I'll hang up. Be seeing you sometime.

Gotta go, there's some sort of dust in my eye. Probably a crumb from a Shrewsbury biscuit.

Monday, January 28, 2008

So there's this question that has bugged me (and many others) for a while: why isn't there 'genre' fiction in India? Why no science fiction, no fantasy, no noir, no horror? Or cyberpunk, splatterpunk, steampunk, alternate history, space opera? Why are Indian writers so dumb, why can't they write in all these cool genres that we read about on Boingboing?

To answer this question, we'll have to step back a little. You'll notice that the second list of genres above - starting from cyberpunk - sounds somewhat unfamiliar. That's because these are comparatively modern additions to the 'genre' set. Cyberpunk was popularized by William Gibson, Steampunk by China Mieville and co., Alternate History by Philip K Dick and many others, Space Opera arguably by Star Wars and E.E. Doc Smith, Splatterpunk by Clive Barker. These are very rough pointers, so no nitpicking, please. My point is, we're able to generally identify one or more writers as creators of a 'genre' here. These were good writers, and the concepts appealed to people, and they formed a genre.

What does it mean when a concept appeals to people? As a layman, I'd answer that it suggests answers to the questions that a society is currently asking itself. Cyberpunk is an answer to the question, "Is new technology really going to make the world a better place?", for example. As an member of society, I want to know this and will want to explore possible storylines around this topic.

Look at the 'original' genres for confirmation - sci-fi, horror, fantasy, noir. Do they follow the same pattern? They do. Fantasy as we know it today was almost completely defined by Tolkien. H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were the original Sci-fi writers. Poe, Lovecraft, M.R. James, Sheridian Le Fanu kickstarted the horror genre, which really didn't exist as a genre before then. Detective fiction - Doyle, and before him, Somerset Maugham. Go look up these names on wikipedia or something - hardly any of them are more than 200 years old - which sounds surprising. And all of these were as equally a response to the public opinion of the day, as Cyberpunk is. Science fiction has always been a response to the technology of the day, fantasy explores all the 'what-if's that don't fit under science, and perhaps alternative social histories and hierarchies. Horror? Look up the monsters in M.R. James' work, and the ones in, say, Bentley Little's work, and work it out.

During these past 200 years, what were the concerns of the average Indian? Everyone will have a different answer, but I doubt it was extra terrestrial beings or a recreation of a heroic past. Why, then, would anyone expect these genres to take root in India? The way the very word 'genre' is understood today is extremely eurocentric and amru-centric (if I may coin a phrase). We have our own genres, probably multiple genres per language, though they aren't a part of any ISBN classification scheme. What 'genre' does Manohar Kahaniyan publish in? What about the mountains of religious literature published in Gujarati? Dada Kondke movies? It would be unfair to coerce these into the categories that English literature is broken up into. If anything, there should be new names for these.

Let's take a somewhat parallel example: Japanese literature. To make the issue easier, let's focus on only the Manga/Anime. There's one category of manga that I personally enjoy: what's called seinen manga. This is 'mature' manga, not 'mature' as in sexual or violent content, but as in complicated themes, realistic scenarios, darker subject matter. There's no real equivalent in the English classification spectrum. Yet, because this style of manga is popular in the US, American publishers publish it in translations, with a ridiculous genre notation like 'fantasy/conspiracy/horror/scifi' on the back cover. The Japanese don't distinguish between these so-called different genres - there are seamless blends of all of these and more, in most long-running manga series. I don't see (perhaps because I can't read Japanese) teenagers there decrying the lack of hard science fiction stories the way the Americans have them.

Another example, again Japanese, is the Godzilla movies. These were a direct response to the fear of Atomic bombs, then prevalent in the common public, and thus became very popular. The 'Giant Monster movie' genre was picked up from the Japanese and turned into hundreds such, by Hollywood - Cloverfield being only the latest of them. But they're a novelty, an offshoot of science fiction, in the US - Godzilla represents something much deeper to the Japanese, something that can't really be classified.

The literature market in India is expanding currently, in all languages, along with economic prosperity. Expect a stratification in the years to come - a deepening of the market, along with a clearer distinction between different readers' tastes. There is also a commercialization happening in the market, the way it has happened in the American market over the past 50 years or so. What commercialization did in the US was to create writers who wrote for a specific market rather than writing for themselves - books intended to be read only by the horror market, say - which created the genre conventions that today seem to be ironclad for each genre. I can't say whether the same will happen here - perhaps it already is, with buzzwords like 'Campus Novel' and 'Chick Lit' already making the rounds. The genres will deepen as the market expands.

This is a good time to be a writer in India - or a film maker, or a singer, or a poet. Expect interesting things to happen over the next few years.

PS. The past few days, whenever tunes into IBN7 (or is it 24x7?) they seem to be showing mysterious objects seen in the sky and reported by viewers, along with speculation about aliens. News channels have a knack for reporting what people like to hear. Are we then heading for a desi science fiction age?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I'm back. I think.

Happy New Year, by the way.

For a long time I've been trying to figure out why I haven't been writing. Two years back, I was flying like the Rajdhani, struggling just to keep up with the ideas springing to life in my brain. A novel, the novel, just bubbling over inside, building up it's flavours so fast it was a full time job just to put them all down on paper. Short stories, like little rivulets of excess story, trickling down the cauldron of Novel.

Then, somehow,the fire went out. The cauldron bubbled for a bit, throwing out a few last precious sputters, and settled into a seething mass that tormented but produced no output. Everything I wrote since has been flat and lifeless. Attempts at pushing myself have been worthless - I myself can see the poor quality of my writing, I can see that my older stuff was better, why be surprised at anyone's rejection?

It took me this long to see what was happening. What it was, was that the input to the pipeline had dried up. If your output is supposed to be prose, your input really needs to be prose. Whereas what I've been doing for a while now has been something else altogether - reading comics by the scores. Watching movies, TV serials. Reading web pages by the thousands, yes, thousands. This stuff probably helps me if I want to write for comics or make movies (indeed, ideas for movie plots have begun to bubble up these days). But that's not what I set out to be - I chose writing, long before I realized that it was a choice I was making.

All it took a couple of weeks of full-blown reading - 4 books in 3 weeks, and counting, to start building up the Writing Cauldron again. Reminded me of how long it's been since I read books like that, in great gulps, every spare minute I got. The cauldron hasn't yet reached boiling point - it'll probably take another few weeks of the intense reading - but I can feel something happening there.

Let's hope I can keep it going.

PS. In case anyone, (I'm referring to you, George) notices, yes, I've been finishing a Palahniuk book. Shows up in the writing, doesn't it?