Friday, February 25, 2011

Is This A Blog About...

I think I am suffering from writer’s block. That does not mean that I cannot write. It only means that I cannot write responsibly. The common ‘cure’ for this incurable malaise is to write and write ad nauseum. I have decided to try that with a web log a.k.a. blog (for an ‘old’ history of blogs, click here).

The paragraph given above is a type of confession, anticipatory bail and apology.

An apology seems out of place when there seems to be empirical proof which suggests that one is lucky if 50% of visitors to one’s blog read the beginning, 25% read the end, 12.5% read the middle and 66.67% of those who recommend have not read any part completely (for references, click here).

1.       Is this a blog about blogs or writer’s block…I don’t think so…let me move on…

Recently, I read an article, Dan Jacobson on the story of stories, which appeared in the London Review Of Books. The article essentially explores the character of short stories. It notes that the traditional or familiar view of short stories is as given by V.S. Pritchett:

‘The novel tends to tell us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that intensely.’

In that article, this ‘critical tenet’ is augmented, if not challenged, by:

‘The finest short stories…are peculiarly concerned with ‘the presence of a mystery which is beyond art, and which [the writer] can only partially explain’…

The duality of a really good short story constitutes its expression of our human awareness that everything in life is full of significance, and at the same time that nothing in it has any significance at all…

…‘Beyond the setting and the subject, another story begins to take shape as we read, or after we finish reading.’…

It is in this respect that they are unlike novels. For all the apparent freedom and largeness with which they are endowed, novels insist on definitions and explanations; more than that, they have an ineluctable drive towards a grand settling of accounts among their characters and a judging of the issues that have been at stake between them. Of these ambitions the best short stories…are bound to be free.’

The author also introduces ‘the idea of irresponsibility’ of short stories:

‘Historically, the short story developed after the invention of the novel, and the detailed, inward explorations of individual consciousness which the new genre undertook. To that task the novel, in all its variations, remains indissolubly wed. That is its glory; and that is its trouble too. Like any marriage, it demands such a degree of commitment from those involved in it. Whereas the short story reminds us that it is possible to have rewarding relationships outside marriage, too – relationships which are rewarding precisely because the commitment they demand is a relatively modest one, a short-term one, a mutually forgiving one. The story offers both the writer and the reader some of the pleasures of the novel, with all its intimacies and surprises, and then it offers both partners to the transaction the additional pleasure of being fleeting, of not making any pretence of exhaustively exploring the possibilities that lie within itself. That is what I mean by the irresponsibility of the form; and it is amazing to think how much we have benefited from the licence which writers as different as Lawrence and James, or Kafka and Wells, have been able to take within it.’

2.      Is this a blog about short stories…probably not…let me shift to authors and readers and their readers…

A few days back, a blog (it could be called a short story, too) and a comment on that blog caught my attention; and the train of thoughts that followed took a life of its own.

The blog ‘For God’s Sake, Listen’ (click here) is about a broken relationship. The comment (click here) asks two questions: (1) Why the footnotes ?’ and (2) ‘So WHY? Why Shanthi had to leave?’ 

Why did I find this unremarkable blog interesting? There are three people involved here: the author, the reader/commenter and I. A fourth entity could be added to the list, too: the story, itself. And, none have a clue about how to answer any question.

I worked on my ‘take’ of the story:
a)      The story does not give answers.
b)      Maybe, the protagonist has never ‘listened’ to the real reason (hence, the title).
c)      Have we (and the characters) given up quality for quantity of information or communication?
d)      It is difficult to find the real reason for a broken relationship.
e)      If the reason was known, the story might not exist.
f)       Probably, the first reading of the story should avoid the footnotes.
g)      On a later reading, the footnotes might serve to give the ‘history’ or era or the ‘real-time’ thoughts of the protagonist (instead of thinking about his separation or his wife, he thinks about Arundathi Roy, Shashi Tharoor  and, worse, Lalit Modi! But, that is not far from reality, is it?).
h)      Does it make any difference if it happened post- or pre- recession?
i)        Has time shifted focus from the ‘reason to leave’ to the reason to stay’?

Thus, apart from the initial air of uncertainty, there is a shift in spotlight. Rather than the author or the story, the comment and my ‘take’ seems more important to me. The spotlight might return to the author or the story or another ‘take’ or comment, I know.

In a way, I was beginning to mimic the protagonist of that story. I seem to be more comfortable with my ‘fleeting relationship’, exploring my own perception or understanding of the story. And, gradually but quite insistently, I moved away or ‘separated’ from the original story and characters.

Anyway, at the end of the day, it might be true to say that everyone other than the two people involved in the broken relationship will seem to know a reason for the separation or broken relationship. Everyone will have their reason; and, the real reason might remain unknown.

3.      Is this a blog about broken relationships or…is this a blog about readers, their interests and the evolving relationship with stories…now, let me shift to firmer ground…to a short story…

Yesterday, I asked a friend to tell me a story. Her dimple deepened, she pursed her lips, she kept staring at her toes; well, she did nearly everything other than look at me. If I was less familiar with her ways, I would have assumed that she was trying to recollect an appropriate story. I knew that she was trying to decide whether she should tell me the story.

Five minutes later, she started…with the disclaimer:

‘It is not really a story…some of it is true…’

Around mid-1999, a few months before the dot-coms went bust and the markets crashed, Shankar liquidated his portfolio of over-priced stocks. There was a simple reason for this market-savvy move. He had inherited this portfolio in early 1999 after the timely demise of an otherwise indifferent relative. He wisely decided that he should not own something he did not understand.

Shankar planned to use his new wealth to build a house on a small plot of ancestral land he owned. Next, on that list of plans, he would marry a suitable woman.

The plot of land is in a village called N about 40km from the capital. The Wikipedia describes N as

‘As of 2001[update] India census, N had a population of 14854 with 6942 males and 7912 females…The village is with beautiful scenery and good people. People in different religion, different political parties; but friendly and co operative and eager to help others. here you can find…village offfice, sub registar office, post office.’

Strangely, it does not mention a rather famous incident that occurred in this village in the early-70s. A group of Naxalites killed a landlord. These days, most say that the ‘landlord’ was a poor upper-caste gentleman who had never harmed anyone. Others say that the victim should be considered as a symbol or that the killing was a protest against centuries of torture and abuse. In some of those rumours, one of Shankar’s relatives was a part of that group of murderers. That relative died of natural causes soon after that killing (he was bitten by a snake on Shankar’s plot of land).

Shankar’s plot of land agrees with the description on Wikipedia – ‘with beautiful scenery and good people’.

At the bottom, there is a stream separating the plot and paddy fields. Around Shankar’s house, there is tulsi, jasmine and konna in the front; coconut trees, plantain and tapioca on both sides; pepper, yam, bitter-gourd, chilly and okra at the back; two mango trees, a jackfruit tree along with a few teak trees also fight for space. His neighbours are friendly and non-interfering. They share sweets and delicacies during Onam and Ramzan. The plot of land slopes upwards from the house and beyond the vegetable garden it is mostly rubber trees standing mutely in rows at regular intervals. Near the top of that plot and to the left, about 100m from the house, there is a large rock with boulders precariously balanced on top and around this rock there are two cashew trees and wild pineapple.

This rock and the hollows around it are supposed to be the abode of snakes. In Shankar’s family, there is a belief that a king cobra takes care of them and their land. A guiltless person worthy of trust is supposed to be safe from the poisonous reptiles. It is true that in the past hundred years or so, only one person has died of snake bite on that land. Shankar was not scared of those snakes.

As a kid, he had stayed there often. His grand-aunt used to live on that plot then, in a small thatched hut with small dark rooms and the sound of scurrying and scratching beneath the bed and on the roof. He was not scared of rodents either.

His grand-aunt was a great cook and for Shankar, that more than compensated for everything else. On some holidays, when she was sick (‘her usual madness’, the elders told Shankar), he was not allowed to visit her. He still remembered those dark silent nights with his half-crazy grand-aunt praying and chanting till dinner-time. He was not scared of crazy people, too.

As planned, Shankar married a suitable woman. His wife, Shailaja, made his house a home; she took care of him; she cooked well for him. She helped him with his various business interests and the small-scale agriculture on their plot of land. They planned to have kids after a year of marriage, as soon as they had properly settled on that land. They shared their worries and hopes. The couple looked forward to a bright future together. For the first time in his life, he had a steady companion. This couple, in their own ways, expressed their care and affection for each other. That could have been love.

Shailaja shared her past and present with her husband. She likes to be an open book to him, she told him. It is not known if she revealed every aspect of her past. Shankar did not have any reason to suspect her.

As for Shankar, there was one part of him that he did not share. He was fond of reading and he tried to write, too. He did not like to share his writing with anyone. It is personal, he told himself. And, he believed that none would understand his writing the way he wants them to understand.

Five months after they started living in their new house, they got a book-shelf for Shankar’s vast collection of books. One day, in his absence, Shailaja unpacked a carton of his books. She found a diary.

The diary was for the year 1991. But, within that diary, the finely hand-written dated entries spanned three years (1996-1998), some of the entries were on consecutive days, some with a gap of two or three days but never beyond a week.

In that diary, Shailaja read about Shankar’s pre-marital love affair. She read about how he met the lady, how their relationship waxed and waned in the early years, how they bonded, how the relationship strengthened and how they became one. Her cheeks grew hot when she read about their lovemaking, she felt like ripping those dirty pages. She cried when she read about how the lady died.

She was still crying when Shankar returned to find her in their dark bedroom, with the evening lamp still unlit. She was still holding that diary. He took it from her hands, placed it in a drawer of his desk and walked out of the house.

He returned late, smelling of tobacco and liquor. She asked him if she should serve dinner. He told her that he had had dinner outside. A brief silence followed. Then, Shailaja started asking questions. He remained silent that night and on every occasion she talked about the diary.

She should not have looked at his diary. Maybe. Why can’t he open his mouth and talk properly? Why not, indeed! Well, those questions and more will be raised by any audience, right?

Couple of months went by. On the outside, everything remained the same for the couple.

One day, about seven weeks after she read the diary, the couple was found dead in that house. She was hanging from a hook in the ceiling. He was lying on the floor. Post-mortem revealed that he had died of a snake-bite. Post-mortem could not ascertain whether he died before or after her. It could not even reveal if she had taken her life or whether he had killed her.

Neighbours told the police that they used to hear Shailaja shouting. They never heard Shankar’s voice or any sound that indicated that Shankar fought back, they admitted to the police.

My friend stopped telling the story right there. I felt as if she had stopped mid-way or that she had more to say. I asked her for more details. She told me that the story is better if the story ends there. I insisted. I had long since realized that her story was not fiction.

‘His diary…I know about it…’ she said.

‘Know what…?’ I asked my friend.

‘I have read it…Shankar showed it to me once…’ she replied. ‘At that time, he had completed only the first part – only 1998.’

‘What?’ I must have sounded like a parrot fixated with that word.

‘Don’t you get it…it was all fiction…he started with the death of an imaginary lady-friend. That was the first entry and written on the last page. He worked backwards. The part I saw was very convincing,’ she admitted.

‘He is crazy. He could have told his wife about that.’ I protested.

‘When he completed that story, he must have realized that it was and would remain his best writing ever.’ She continued, ‘I think the story became more than that to him. He had found love through that, unrivalled love, you know…the kind of love his wife or anyone would believe. Anyway, do you think his wife would have believed him if he had told her the truth?’

With all this talk about love, I lost interest quite quickly. Later, before we separated, I asked her,

‘Do you think the snake bit the right person?’

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Even as a kid, Adarsh knew that his life was different.

In school, he listened to his mates’ daily reports about their life outside. Mostly, it was the same repeated over and over, about parties, fights with siblings, shopping trips, visitors, gifts and punishment. He thought of it as a prop or a background rather than drama itself since everything sounded plausible and the fabricated sounded empty. He tried to be a good audience, listening well, applauding and cheering politely. For him and, strangely, for the others too, it was like a TV break for meaningless commercials waiting for the main show. During the first week after every vacation, the stage was his and his alone, and did he deliver to his large young audience.

He remembered his first when he told them about a picnic deep within equatorial forests, by the bank of virgin rivers, with uncharted rapids and the eyes of tribal headhunters, orang utan and vicious reptiles following him and his parents. His mother and her magical rustic spread of tapioca, hot fish curry and other delicacies on a checked red-white sheet; his father disappearing behind water-falls, holding his breath underwater for endless minutes; he told them the believable truth, even admitting how he preferred to sit in shallow waters, with precocious caution and cloudy thoughts.

He never had to repeat a place or a trip. He took them to cold mountains and secluded cabins with wild animals howling outside; the big cities and the high rises with the hustling bustling masses; the exclusive beaches and the resorts, the shopping for the latest and the best, the exotic and the shady. As they grew older, his trips matured and they got what they wanted to hear. He made them giggle at strange customs and perversions, wonder with wide-eyes about smoke-filled rooms and falling casino chips, drool over 14-course meals with snake-meat, shark-fins and tender-tortoise, or lick their young lush lips lasciviously listening to the sounds of boulevards where everywhere everyone had a price for everything.

In the ninth-grade, Shanthi became his soul-mate. She was part of his audience but to him, she seemed different from the others. Though he found it disconcerting, he liked the thought that she understood him. After each vacation, on-stage, he would search for her dusky form, try to read her dark soft eyes, the smile on her lips, interpret her gestures or the way she sat or twirled her straight black hair with her fingers. Off-stage, they talked, exchanged ideas and shared thoughts.

That year, just before the long summer break, she invited him to her house for her birthday party. He broke his piggy bank and got for her a cuddly monkey, a pendant, a book and a CD with music compiled just for her. He wanted to give her everything. He felt uncomfortable in his new clothes, kept fidgeting with his hair the whole afternoon and tried to get to her house on time, not too early, not too late.

She received him at the door, blushed and accepted his gifts. She made him feel special, giving him company more than the others and later, she took him inside, to the dining area, where her parents were busy arranging the dishes. She introduced him. They too seemed really glad to see him.

Her father kept a hand on his shoulder, like friends. Her mother gave him a kind smile and enquired, ‘Are your parents in town?’

Adarsh shook his head. Her father asked him, ‘Shanthi told us that their jobs take them to lots of places. What do they do?’

Adarsh told him about his parents’ jobs. Shanthi took him upstairs to show the bedroom she shared with her sisters. She held his hand and told him,

‘I know you are lonely but I don’t want you to feel that way ever again, ok?’

They returned to their mates and joined in the good cheer. Adarsh felt a heaviness creeping in with each passing moment. By the time he left Shanthi’s house, he was rather breathless and quite numb. He reached his house, sweating profusely as if with high fever. He collapsed on to his usual seat by the bedroom window, with a view of empty streets and shuttered windows, curled up beneath a blanket, clenching the thick material, staring outside seeing nothing.

Shanthi’s words and that of her parents kept echoing in his mind. He felt confused and angry. She had betrayed his trust. He did not want her to evaluate him or to discuss his affairs with anyone. He did not want to be judged or condemned; evaluated or consoled; he did not want anyone to tell him about his life, a life he liked to pick, choose and create; he did not want others to enter or guess those parts which he considered to be irrelevant. He wanted to share his life; he did not want them to change it.

‘What does she know about my life?’ he screamed in that empty room, snarling with spit frothing at the sides of his mouth.

There was a knock at his bedroom room. Bhaskar, the old cook-and-caretaker-and-distant-relative, came in with a glass of chocolate milk and asked Adarsh,

‘Are you feeling ok, son?’

Adarsh nodded and the old man left silently. He really liked the old couple, Bhaskar and his wife. Those two and the driver-handyman Kishore gave him everything – company, care and conversation. Adarsh sipped the drink and relaxed, allowing the earlier thoughts to slip away into the dark night like unwelcome guests, to be forgotten forever.

That summer, his parents had arranged to meet him at Cargèse. He travelled alone to Paris, took a shuttle bus from the Charles de Gaulle airport to Orly, and barely got the flight to Corsica. His father was waiting for him at the airport at Ajaccio. They had cappuccino and pastry while they waited for his mother to arrive on the next flight. The 50-km car-ride from the airport to their seaside resort cottage at Cargèse took about an hour. The three caught up on each other’s life. They planned to stay together over there for two weeks.

As per his parents’ arrangements, Adarsh attended a youth camp every morning. He enjoyed trekking, swimming and exploring the island-village with the other youngsters. On the fourth day, when he got to the camp, he was informed that it was a holiday. He trudged back to the resort. He went up to his parents’ side of the cottage. There was a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door, probably meant for cleaning ladies. He walked away trying to decide what to do on his own till lunch-time.

He walked towards the two churches in the village. He sat outside, between the Greek and the Latin churches that face each other. He smiled at the thought of being a middleman taking messages from one divine authority to the other. After a while, he got up and took the road past the cottages, moving slowly towards the sea-facing cliff.

He stood there at the edge, timing the waves that pounded the jagged cliff walls, counting the smooth weather-worn rocks appearing and disappearing, waved at yachts in the calm blue sea stretching till the far away misty hills.

He felt the old thoughts return, his breathing got heavy and he felt his mind go numb. He cursed Shanthi softly but kindly. Maybe, this time, he will not take the stage and tell them about this place and this trip. Will Shanthi still want to be my mate, he wondered. He thought of a new life off-stage forever. He knew that he had to move away from the edge, to lead that new life; or, to continue and reenter the stage and talk about his trips; or, on that edge, if he thinks about his life, if he trips…