Saturday, November 28, 2009

A stab at writing

There’s a reason that many writers have odd personalities: writing is such a solitary exercise that you can see why they might eventually go quite postal, or at least start wearing funny hats and divorcing their spouses. I love to look at the Guardian’s online edition where they have a column called ‘Writers’ rooms’, which features a photograph of some one, well, writer’s room, and a short write-up outlining the space and how the person uses it, according to their particular routines, eccentricities and superstitions. It makes me feel very well adjusted because I don’t have, for instance, giant paper fish hanging from the ceiling, or a dessicated crocodile on the wall.

Anyway: it’s solitary, and yet people are not free of the desire for a community. You might have virtual communities like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the US, or Novel Race right here in Delhi, where legions of unsung aspirants to novelistic fame get together online to set writing goals and then compare progress. But I’m not sure how many have real writing communities of the flesh and blood variety. I have heard of a few writing groups, for instance, but can’t be certain that they really do exist, because I’m too solitary and weird myself to join in, even though it’s a moot point whether I qualify as ‘writer’, because I just sit at the dining table pretending to write while actually secretly checking Facebook.

One of the reasons that writers find it difficult to form communities, in my unsolicited opinion, is that when they get together they spend a lot of time trashing other writers—not their work, which is fair enough, but their personalities, lifestyles, clothing, and sexual and other peccadilloes. This is, I suppose, the way of homo sapiens in most professions, and actually forms deeply bonded ‘us and them’ groups that can be effective teams, but in the world of writing it seems particularly difficult to do because the product is so intimately tied to ego. There’s nothing a couple of writers seem to enjoy as much as to get together and character assassinate a third, but then they’re just as likely to stab each other in the back at the end of it all. Three dead people is what you’d get at the end of that.

The cutthroat competition is even more ramped up these days when suddenly every second person you meet seems to want to be a writer (just to clarify, that means the kind with a photo on Page Three cuddling up to a Bollywood celeb, not the kind with a divorce and a funny hat). I met a man the other day who, at twenty-five, is starting work on his second novel; the first was written in between graduate school classes; I half expected him to add, “at night, after writing my university papers, tilling the fields and milking the cows”. (At the same dinner were multiple Foreign Service wives writing books, and journalists halfway through theirs—really, everyone is writing a book.)

So it’s wonderful to occasionally meet a writer who not only enjoys other writers but even seems to want to help them along their way. So far I’ve met exactly two such people, and even they were full of interesting tidbits about other writers, though those tidbits stayed on the right side of the line between information and gossip. Here’s to that, because if you keep dissing everyone else who writes you’ll have nobody left to talk to, and then you’ll end up wearing a wig and furry gorilla shoes and it will be your fault.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eating crow, part two

I have a soft spot for Kumaon that I cannot really explain; these are not the highest or even the most breathtaking hills to be had in this large and lovely country, but they are far and away my favourites. It has something to do, I think, with scale—Kumaon is hardly gentle hillocks, but the Himalaya bares its really serious teeth at a comfortable distance.

Still, some bits are lovelier than others. I’ve always thought of Bhimtal as the dregs of Kumaon, a murky lake surrounded by construction, lying at the bottom of a hill-sided bowl. I’m not saying it’s completely hideous, but my favourite way to experience it has been as a blur on the right as the car drives past at high speed towards higher, prettier places. Nonetheless, this week I’m taking the opportunity to beg pardon of Bhimtal, much as I ate humble pie about Shimla this summer, and admit that it can be quite nice.

Part of why it was nice is that just getting out of Delhi is always such a relief. (There’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of the great blue shadow of the ranges above the plains; I always expect the pleasure and excitement to wear off but it never does.) But it was largely because we were staying with Bunti Bakshi and Bindu Sethi at their Fishermen’s Lodge hotel right on the lake. Frankly, when you’re sitting by a crackling fire with a nice warming beverage, good conversation and Mark Knopfler on the music system, and excellent food and drink on the large, European-style deck overlooking the lake, which is quite blue and pretty after all, it’s hard to be grumpy.

Plus, they drove us around so that we got to see a little bit of the region around Bhimtal, which I’ve never stopped to see before. Sattal is one such place—a series of seven pretty mountain lakes that reflect green trees and blue sky deep in forested hills. You can walk between the lakes through the forest, or go boating in the water that connects six of them. Much of it is on land owned by the Christian Ashram; you can walk to the ashram complex which is crowned by a strange little circular church furnished with nothing but mattresses to sit on.

We sat for a while by the edge of Panna Tal, the emerald shine that is the only self-contained water body among the seven. It’s the site of the tiniest and by far the most beautiful open-air church I’ve ever seen: a series of curved benches by the lakeshore, with a small circular platform and a tiny pulpit (submerged when we were there); the forest behind the congregation and the lake spreading in front, with a small white cross standing on the green hill across the water. There’s nothing but birdsong, breeze, and the smell of leaves and flowers. If you can’t summon up any religious enthusiasm, a cold beer and/or a book works just as well.

We also drove up behind Bhimtal to Jungalia Gaon, en route getting a bird’s eye view of pretty nine-cornered Naukuchiatal lake. From Jungalia Gaon you can fly back down the mountain road on a bicycle, assuming you’re not me. If you’re me, you roll along the downhill bits competently enough, but when the road inclines upwards by a hair, you get off the bike and push it, pretending that that was the plan all along, and that the huffing and puffing echoing through the valley is really just the breeze. Either way, it’s a particularly delicious way to get back down a mountain.

So there you are, I was wrong again. Go see for yourself.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The bane of the thane

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has endured the test of time not only because it is a cautionary tale about when to ignore your spouse, but also because of its poignant lessons in the importance of sleep.

Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

Macbeth moans these lines right after sticking a knife in Duncan, King of Scotland, his royal liege and, worse, his houseguest at the time. Macbeth’s premonition proves accurate; he spends the rest of his nights roaming his ill-gotten palace wretched with guilty, paranoid insomnia. (His wife, the one with the bad ideas, is also up after a fashion, trying to wash her blood-sodden hands, but that’s no consolation to him.)

About the only thing that Macbeth and I have in common, besides a tendency to moan, is that neither of us has been getting much sleep.

I’m a great fan of slumber. I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence snoring, sometimes from 9pm until 1pm the next afternoon, and had no trouble falling asleep. This may or may not have had to do with the fact that I often sneaked some one bottle of my mother’s inexhaustible supply of homeopathic medicines to bed with me as a light, sugary snack. If my constitution today is slightly dodgy, it’s probably because of massive overdoses of Ipecac, Rhus Tox, Nux Vomica, Causticum, Belladonna and other irresistibly named pills. The important thing, however, is that I slept the sleep of the selfish innocent.

My mother, who emerged from a convent education striving to be worthy and who therefore has great trouble sleeping, detests late sleepers. She would sweep into my room at daybreak and snap the curtains back with a noise like a thousand Mongol horsemen galloping across a tin plain, using her special insomniac’s megaphone to let me know that it was 7am and that staying in bed was now officially immoral. When you’ve been up since 3am I suppose 7am feels really late, but if you’re someone who isn’t done sleeping, 7am may as well be 3am and frankly I’m thinking of a dog, and I’m thinking of a manger.

I’ve spent the rest of my life making up for all this painful childhood business by damn well sleeping as much as I can. My friends think of me as a sort of matronly basket case who eats before 8pm to safeguard her digestion, begins to droop around 10pm and sleeps not much later than that to safeguard her energy, and goes for periodic wobbles around the park to safeguard her—oh, scratch that, that battle’s long been lost.

All this is perfectly true. So they no longer know me, because for the last several weeks I have consistently been up all night, indulging in various combinations of conversation, alcohol, Scrabble and wee hours-breakfast. By all that’s holy and right, and also according to past evidence, I should be dead, or at least very grumpy, but instead I spend the day bounding around, energetically making plans to stay out all night again. Will it last, will it not? How long can an engine run on empty? Watch for a black border around this space.

The weird thing is that my mother, who heartily disapproves of this sort of thing, has not once flared her exquisitely expressive nostrils. Part of it, I think, is because she has an anthropological interest in listening to my recap of the strange nocturnal habits of the adolescent middle-aged.

But most of it, I suspect, is because she’s just really pleased that I’m not sleeping either.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Desert draws

So there we were at 4.30am, un-slept and merry, peering cross-eyed into the Rajasthani night at the hill we’d suddenly decided to climb. Atop it is the temple dedicated to Savitri, Brahma’s first wife, who stormed off there when she discovered that comely Gayatri had turned all four of His heads and become the Creator’s second wife. (There’s now a court case in which the Brahma temple priest is demanding that offerings made to Savitri should by right come to Brahma; and the Savitri temple priest says it should be the other way around since Brahma owes Savitri alimony.) Anyway, for some reason, it seemed vital to go and climb this hill. Now.

How to get there? Four kilometres to the base of the climb; no car; very merry. We figured we’d just point our noses at it and walk, but a hotel chowkidar pointed at a patch of desert that looked just like every other patch of desert and said ‘Follow that trail.’ We leered uncertainly at it for a minute, then plunged into the underbrush, armed only with some water nicked off the reception desk, and a bar of Kit Kat. Five hours later—after a forty-minute walk and a brief ride hitched on a jeep, a beautiful lung-busting hour’s climb, a hilltop sunrise, and breakfast with a slightly snappy sadhu named Alu Baba because he eats nothing but potatoes—a camel dropped our shattered corpses back to the hotel, where we crashed out with a smile, and possibly some drool, playing faintly about our lips.

Now, this is the kind of thing I just wouldn’t have been able to do had I not decided to attend the first ever Pushkar Literature Festival, a one-day event organised by Siyahi as part of the weeklong celebrations of the Pushkar Mela, which is admittedly better known for camels than letters.

The festival had little going for it. It’s the first time anyone has attempted a literary festival here. A significant portion of the audience consisted of students who shifted a lot and shared iPod music and giggled (though one girl did tear up with emotion during the poetry session, at which point all her friends lost interest in the stage and devoted themselves to a group hug). Some of the biggest draws on the programme could not turn up—Tarun Tejpal, for instance, was felled by illness.

And let’s face it, an open-air Pushkari amphitheatre is hot, even under a shamiana whose multiple poles were lifted clear off the ground when the wind swelled under the roof, so that the whole thing occasionally began to hop around like a large, nervous, many-legged animal.

And yet, it all worked nicely, with a mix of subject and medium that kept things interesting. Aman Nath gave an illustrated talk from his travels in Pushkar and Rajasthan. Namita Gokhale read from her children’s book The Puffin Mahabharata, complemented by Gafaruddin Mewati’s troupe singing the epic, and journalist and writer Sadanand Dhume reading from his book My Friend the Fanatic a section about the Mahabharat in Indonesia. Scriptwriter Anuvab Pal provided comic relief with his entertaining book, play and movie The President is Coming.

After lunch poet Sheen Kaaf Nizam recited some Urdu poetry. Sathya Saran read, along with journalist Rahul Jayaram, from her book 10 Years With Guru Dutt. Journalist and writer Kota Neelima read an extract from her new book Death of a Moneylender and discussed the politics of reportage with firebrand Aruna Roy. It was wrapped up with Veddan Sudhir telling Rajasthani folk tales to general merriment.

It may not have had the scale or celebrity of Jaipur’s literature festival, but the Pushkar lit fest felt informal, intimate and weirdly charming. That’s the kind of thing that sends you up a hill before dawn. If they had another one, I’d go.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Rolling stones

My friends often accuse me of being a bit on the detached side. While I’m open to criticism, I have to say that after spending so much quality time hanging out and cooing supportively into their ears, I find it a little hurtful that they continue to see through me so easily. I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that they don’t use the phrase my family does, which begins with ‘cold-blooded’ and ends with ‘reptile’.

Detachment is one of those double-edged traits that people have trouble with because it involves a baseline failure to care overly much beyond a certain point. I should say upfront that I’m no Buddhist monk, and my detachment is not as much about spiritual evolution as it is about not giving a rat’s ass, so it’s quite likely that it is the sharper of my two edges that is better worn.

However, contrary to what you might expect, I don’t just go ahead and blame my parents—that’s not a very adult thing to do. I prefer to find a slice of peaceful time conducive to introspection, when I can examine the historical evidence of my life with a tranquil mind, and then I go ahead and blame my parents. It’s totally their fault for hauling me from country to country and school to school when I was young, setting in place both a lifelong tendency to form attachments quickly as well as a lifelong aversion to making them either too deep or too long. Or at least that’s my psychobabble, and I’m sticking to it.

The consequence is that I keep my life above-averagely light, mobile and free of investment. This is, however, a fraught enterprise, because it pokes at all the clefts in my dull little soul: I’m as inclined to nest in domestic comfort as I am to wander the Himalayas besmeared with ash; as tempted to never leave the city limits as to never get off the open road; and as desirous of love as I am averse to commitment.

I know, I know: take a token and get in line, lady. But while most people find their way around these gaps, usually by choosing one side over the other and then sucking it up like well-adjusted human beings, I seem to lack the ability. It’s my parents’ fault.

So I structure my life as sustainably as possible in the circumstances, which is to say precariously, with one foot on either side of the chasm. I shun responsibility such as owning property and taking loans (which turns out to be outrageously easy to do when you have my kind of credit rating), steer clear of fulltime work, don’t make too many plans too much in advance, and spend as much time as possible travelling, to see what it’s like to live in one place. (I never said it was clever.)

There are upsides to being messed up, though, and one of them is that you make a good traveller and passer-through-life because you’re less likely to care enough about where you come from to try to hang on to it or impose it on other people; and at the same time, you’re not likely to care enough about where they come from to want to appropriate it or hang around for too long. And while you like your pals, you won’t necessarily help them move bodies.

So there you are, coated in a slightly toxic but undeniably convenient kind of Teflon, skating along with only inertia and bankruptcy to slow you down as you wheel through the great carnival of life. Not that I care, but what’s not to love?