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Monday, 30 December 2013

My Neighbor

One month ago, she stood at the threshold, out side my door, calling out my name. I was busy with my guests who were about to leave. I asked her to wait but she started to cry, softly at first but then a loud shrill noise. I was distracted, so were my guests. They waved quick goodbyes and asked me to attend to her. I turned to her and asked her what the matter was. She continued to cry in louder decibels, clinging to me, wetting my neck. I took her hand and led her to the room. She sat next to me, closer, and whispered, "I am dying" Her head shiny, exposing her fair skin, was covered with stained towel, she covered her mouth with flap. 

"Look," she said, "I have lost all my hair, I got operated but my head pains too much"

I wished I could help her but pain is the cross that we must carry alone. 

"Don't worry, you will be fine" I consoled. 

I fumbled for words. How do you converse with people who only need moral support? I sat there silently listening to her. she spoke softly, her lips concealed behind the flap. I strained to hear. I wish I understood what she was sharing. I followed the movement of her gestures but could not decode its meaning.

I have known her as a very vibrant lady. she had strong opinions on every issue. Many times she would stand outside my door and rant for hours. I have burnt my food on stove, spilled the milk cause I waited for her to pause. Many of her stories were repeat, told for umpteen times.

Bad health can change you. 

She stood up, walked across the room, stared at me listlessly, came back and sat down again, closer to me. 

"I am afraid, please help me." she whispered

Next day, she stood outside my door again. 

"I am going to the hospital but only for a day. I will be back soon," she said.

Today I learnt that she is never coming back.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Signature of All things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Just finished reading 500 pages narrative story spanning over more than 100 years during 18th and 19th century of an intelligent, single, plain-faced woman who spends her lifetime understanding the creation of mankind through study of botany, mainly Mosses.

The book is divided into five parts.

The first part of the book takes us through the adventures of Henry Whittaker, a plant thief whose boyhood punishment is to send him off to far off place in a madcap voyage of Captain Cook. He returns to make a successful career importing exotic plants to America.

The interest is aroused from first few pages itself. Alma Whittaker is born in rich family to an intelligent mother whose first prayer on seeing her child is that “she grow up to be healthy and sensible and intelligent, and would never form associations with overly powdered girls, or laugh at vulgar stories, or sit at gambling tables with careless men, or read French novels, or behave in a manner suited only to savage Indian, or in any way, whatsoever become the worst sort of discredit to a good family.”

The prayers are answered.

Alma is the person; we begin to love as the story unfolds. During her childhood, she is tireless, uncomplaining and curious to understand the ways of the world.  she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance” Not only did she have clever parents but she also had the entire estate of White acres and the proper resources to explore at her will that helps sharpen her vision towards mysteries of life. Her father advises her to always be self-sufficient and to always have one final bribe. “You must always carry enough gold on you to buy back your life in case of kidnapping. Sew it into your hems, if you must, but never be without money.”

At 16, she chances upon a book ‘With A Grain Of Salt’ that makes her mild jolt wildly. She makes frequent visits to the binding closet to fulfill her sexual longings. The repeated details of her visits to blinding closet and her acts of  masturbation are unnecessary and just lengthen the story.

She is over-shadowed by the beauty of her adopted sister Prudence, who marries their tutor, Arthur Dixon and her best friend Retta Snow marries George Hawke, the person whom she secretly loved. What I fail to understand is why she cannot find a husband to love her? What has physical looks to do with love? Disappointed, she says Let us be honest with ourselves. Who will ever put a ring on these fishwife’s hands of mine? Who will ever kiss this encyclopedia of a head?”

Though this novel veers into far-fetched, even stranger territory in its second half, we continue to root for our heroine. Alma marries Ambrose Pike, a younger man, an eccentric orchid illustrator. He tells her of the work of Jacob Boehme, "a sixteenth century cobbler from Germany who had mystical visions about plants...who believed in 'the signature of all things'...namely that God had hidden clues for humanity's betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth."

Sadly, the sex-less marriage fails and she send him off to Tahiti to her father’s Vanilla plantation to save her from embarrassment. When he dies under mysterious circumstance, she follows his footsteps to uncover the truth about Ambroise rejection of her. In Tahila, she lives a simple life with just one goal to finding the truth.

Eventually Alma finds her way to Amsterdam, where she rekindles her relationship with her mother’s Dutch family and becomes the master of mosses at the Botanical Gardens.

Elizabeth Gilbert has done a lot of research, her facts on voyages of Captain Cook, on biology of Mosses and the demography of 19th century is visually elaborated.

The narration is interesting although most of the other characters are weird with strange habits and even stranger names. We have Arthur Dixon, who gave every inclination of being a man, who had been born sitting up, wearing tight-fitting waistcoat and wool breeches, holding a dense book, and sighing unhappily. If he had urges, where and where did he release them?”  We have Prudence, who lives in utter penury, we have fluttering Retta snow, Reverend Welles of unplumbed depths, Tomorrow Morning, the hero of the natives of Tahiti, etc

Nevertheless, the tale is riveting making the book unputdownable and when you reach to the last page of the book, you want to read some more…

Just one reading is not enough, I am going to read it again

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Literary Carnival ’13 at Mehboob Studio

What pleased me the most about this 3-days-Literary Carnival was that it was happening in my side of the city at Bandra and it was just an auto ride away from my house but the sad part was that I was busy with other appointments and was able to attend only a fraction of this event. But, whatever event I attended was very satisfying to my mind and soul.

This year, the theme revolved around ‘Romance, Love and Violence’ and most of the panel discussions were inextricably linked to these topics.

There were writers, poets, serious thinkers, students, the ambience was fully charged. Large open space occupied the center stage that was surrounded by food kiosks, bookstore and different venues. Those who sat in this open space socialized discussing books and their area of interests, a big serpentine queue waited patiently to get the autographed copy of their favorite writers and those who grabbed a snack or drink kept their attention focused on which event to attend next. The four venues (Adhitya Birla Hall, Yes Bank Hall, Lodha Hall, HDFC Home Loans Lawns) were few steps away from each other and it was easy to move in and out of venues and try to absorb all the conversations. Two big screens and clear audio system at every location made it possible to pay attention even from a distance.

Day one of Literary Carnival ’13, I sat in the open lawn to take part in a workshop on ‘How to attract eye-balls on the story’ It was an hour session during which Indira Chandrashekar of ‘Out Of Print’ brought to our attention that the opening paragraphs of a short story should be powerful enough to arouse an interest of the reader. "There should be the element of curiosity" she said. She read an opening paragraph from a book ‘Too Much Happiness’ by Alice Munro and participants were asked to analyze the story. During the second segment of the session, she read an opening paragraph from her own story ‘She Can Sing’ and participants were asked to create a follow up and write a story.  Listening to the different perspective to the same opening paragraph of the story was very enlightening.

The session at ‘Yes Bank Hall’ on ‘If Food Be The Music Of Love’ was an enlightening one. We were given a box of chocolates, asked to eat one and share the emotion connected with it. Chocolate creates much pleasure on our moods. The session went on to discuss the different kinds of foods and its’ aphoristic effect on our emotions. Some Hollywood filmstrips were also shown where food plays the important part in producing sensuality. The sex associated with different fruits and spices was discussed. I realized, I was attending the session on sex and sensuality when I had thought I would learn some tricks on how to write on food literature…but it was an interesting session and I start to look at food with different approach… Madhu Jain, Managing editor of IQ, moderated the session with Prabeen Singh, food columnist, Pushpesh Pant, author of many cookbooks, and Fantasie Fine Chocolate entrepreneur Zeba Kohli as the guests..

'At Lodha Hall', I attended two sessions in a row: History and Fiction, ‘Blurring the lines’ and ‘How many liberties can a biographer take?’ It was interesting to hear the experiences of the historians and how they dealt with sensitive topics, especially of the living person and how much liberties can one take while writing fiction in real cities. A lot of research is required to get the facts right and one may even have to go to live in that city for months to understand the history of that city.

While the day was spend attending panel discussions of well-known authors or attending some literary workshops, evening was magical at Literature Carnival in Bandra. The music dominated the attention of every person at the open-air lawn, all mesmerized by sounds of sitar strings that were interspersed with the poetry of Hafeez and other Sufi mystics. Many people were busy with their mobiles checking their email or chatting on Watsapp, but their feet moved to the rhythm of the music that floated easily in the air....

The event was very well organized with volunteer fully in control working to their best of their efficiency. I think Mehboob studio is the perfect venue to hold such kind of events.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Sweet Memories Of Sugarcane Juice

Technology has advanced so much that the sugarcane juice is ready in seconds. The person just inserts the sugarcane into the machine, adds ginger and lime, and waits not more than 20 seconds for the machine to do the magic.

But it was not always so. During my teens I remember the man moving the handle of the iron wheel in a circle motions, using his strength to crush the cane between the wheels. He used lot of effort as he folded the cane several times to squeeze out the juice to the last drop.

Recently, in the rural areas, just on the outskirts of Mumbai, I came across this blue and red color cart. Approaching closer, I realized that it was cart carefully designed to squeeze out the sugarcane juice. Now I had never seen this kind of sugarcane juice extraction machine anytime before, so, naturally I was curious.

I requested a glass of cane sugar juice for me. She called her son to help her. While she inserted the cane between the two round wheels, her son came and held on to the long rod attached to the axle at the center of the cart. He walked around the cart, moving the long rod in the circular path around the cart. The sweet juice was extracted from the hard wood leaving behind the tasteless wad of pulp.

I was amazed to see the machine that used only the manual power. There was no electricity consumptions, no noise, it was easy to move and had high efficiency. Beside, it was a good exercise machine where a person moved for a cause. He walked in circles and the result was sweet!!!

For those of you wondering ... sugarcane juice is the national drink of India with a very long history. In those hot summer days, when soft drinks were unknown, and fruit juices were too expensive, available only to the elites, common man found respite from the scorching sun with a fresh glass of sugarcane juice with a little zest of lime, ginger and dry tangy spice.

It was enjoyable then, it is enjoyable even now.....

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