Archive for January, 2009


Physical Vs Mental Spaces

   Posted by: aman    in Other

I have been going to bookstores for the last thirty or so years. I used to go to buy comics and then it became books. When I was studying literature I used to go to buy British and American fiction written by the great novelists. I used to hear their names from the lips of my teachers and from friends and seniors. Bookstores stacked those books and I relished reading them. But now, for the last seven-eight years when I visit bookstores I do not find those titles as easily as I found them earlier. They are tucked away as classics and stores do not display them upfront. What they display is fiction from India by writers writing in English, some from Australia, Africa, and the Indian sub-continent. Makes me wonder if the good old tradition of solid writing from Britain and America is dead.

I posed the question to Utkal. Utkal measures what he says and is very insightful. According to him we do not have many solid books from Britain and America because most fiction writers have started writing more seriously for film. He felt that films are increasingly becoming the preferred medium of communication around the world. Films can show the world with greater colour and sound and also get over much quicker than books.

He said that in the earlier days writers fulfilled a need in people to know about the world. Books were written to take people to unknown parts of the world. In those days books showed the habits and cultures of other races, other places. Now we get all of that on National Geographic. That is why books have to be more about mental spaces than physical spaces. Books need to delve in the mind of the characters.

That made sense to me. To write about mental spaces…

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Writing for Pride

   Posted by: aman    in Translation

Today is Obama’s swearing in. I am eagerly looking at the clock to when the ceremony will begin. Browsing news sites for the exact time of his address I stumbled upon Barack Obama’s Democratic National Convention address in 2004. It tied in with a question I had in mind when I listened to Jayant Kaikini’s talk at his poetry launch in December, 2008. That day the World Cultural Centre in Bangalore was packed with lovers of his writing. Jayant talked of how his songs in Mungaru Male, Milana and other movies had struck a chord with those people who are being increasingly left out of Bangalore’s progress. The cab drivers, the workers of the city who did not get 80 percent marks and who could not get BPO and call centre salaries now felt proud to walk into PVR and see a movie in their own language.

I recognised Jayant’s point about pride for native language and wanted to ask him what should someone like me do? I write but I do not think I belong to a language. Will I ever have a hall full of people on my book launch? I remembered Jayant’s hard days and was happy for this proud moment. But, I wondered if I will ever have people in my audiences who would share the sensibilities of the crowds Jayant had attracted.

I posed the question to Smita Kaikini, Jayant’s wife. She replied: My mother studied in a convent in Goa when the Portuguese were in power there. My mother had struggled for Goa’s independence. She was firm that she will educate her children in the vernacular medium. Our mother tongue is Konkani but Konkani does not have its own script. Marathi is closest and since we were in Bombay, she put all of us in a Marathi medium school.

She further said: Having studied in a Marathi medium school, I had a complex about my English. I did not want it to happen with my kids. So when it came to putting my children to school, I was not ready to put my kids in a vernacular medium school. When my kids sang English rhymes, I knew they did not understand them as we do not speak English at home. I had to explain the meaning of each word (if the rhymes were in the mother tongue they would have been understood without effort). I was uncomfortable, but I did not want my kids to fall behind just because they were not educated in English. If that is the case, what will be the status of regional languages in some years?

This is so right. Maybe I was harking back to an earlier time when people were known by their languages and writers were embodiments of those who had harnessed the language and pushed its envelope to find new meanings. I am sure we will always have language enthusiasts but the reality of more people in the future will be that they will be bi- or multi-lingual. My generation and the next generations will be of those who will struggle with rhymes they do not understand but have to learn and with languages they love but can not use in the bigger world. Maybe writers should, going forward, define meanings irrespective of languages.

Barack Obama’s convention speech is the epitome of such a mixed future. Guess what will remain important is not a language or a regional identity but values. Writing will be about right and wrong, good and bad choices. It will not be about who we are but about what we think and believe in.

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Healing needs Heroes

   Posted by: aman    in Roll of Honour

Seeta called me up one evening when I was in Bangalore. She had been watching Maachis, the movie on Punjab terrorism by Gulzar, and thinking about something that made a lot of sense to me. Seeta has worked with children all over the world, promoting ‘protection’ among them. It is a theme close to her heart. Equipping children to protect themselves acquires its deepest meaning when she works with them in Africa and Kashmir, places torn by war and terrorism. What follows here is her thoughts in retrospect about her work in Kashmir.

She was asking herself why is it that, even after two decades of violence, Kashmir does not heal. She was comparing it to the Bombay terrorist attacks (26/11). She noticed that India started healing even when Bombay was going on and attributed it partly to the fact that in Bombay we already had a number of heroes as the battle was on. The media beamed images of the ATS head, the NSG commandoes, the rescue operations, the Taj staff, and ordinary folks who had saved lived. But there is nothing like that from Kashmir, or the NorthEast, or those strife torn parts of the world where violence continues unabated.

This, she says, is because places that heal find their heroes, but sites of violence which do not heal partly simmer because they find no heroes. What do you tell a Kashmiri child? That your father was a terrorist?

Her argument made sense to me because I am writing Roll of Honour which deals with the terrorism years in Punjab and have been trying with various points of views, time lines, characters, and so on but have failed to present the story. I realise it is because I am unable to create a hero. My story may deal with terrorism but it seeks to heal, how can I do it without creating a character that rises above the tragedy? If I do not do that I do not give the reader a peg. If I do not win my reader, draw him in, how can I expect to make a story? Thank you Seeta for showing me this fundamental truth: healing needs heroes. No heroes, no healing.

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Markers in Text

   Posted by: aman    in Other

Dhanu and I were asking if the quality of a book can be determined from the number of markers it has within it. From this we started pondering if a better book had more markers or less? Okay, we understand that fiction is not mathematics and there can be no easy way to answer the question. Still, the problem begets more questions, so here they are, at random:

  • To appeal to a larger readership, should a book be specifically located?
  • Is it possible to write a book with no markers?
  • Is it possible to think without markers? In abstracts alone?
  • Is the book which is more fun to write also more fun to read?
  • Isn’t it true that most writer-thinking in fiction is from the tangible to the abstract? In fact, most times do you not as a writer record the tangible (make markers) and leave the reader to develop the abstract?
  • Does a reader then not move from the abstract to a tangible? Say you believe in Feminism or Marxism, do you not as a reader then pick books from those readings to call your favourites? The story of one woman or one working class situation?
  • Why do we then see that most writers have not-so-happy lives? If they had fun writing, gave fun to the world through their writing, should they not be more satisfied with themselves? 

I have always held that the more specific a story (solid markers), the greater chance it has of reaching a universal audience. Take the best novels, the reason they work is because they are so located (with markers) that they touch a universal chord with the readers. What do you think?

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Finding my Faith

   Posted by: aman    in Sepia Leaves

When I was a child and had to escort my mother to the doctor’s chamber, I believed that the psychiatrist was a magician and my mother would be altered when she came out of the session. I did not then know that the doctor was human, and ever since then I have struggled with psychiatry. My struggle also got me my friends. Dr Ajit Bhide is the kind psychiatrist in my article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry special January 2009 issue. Dr Bhide not only helped me deal with my traumas and depression but also nudged me to write Sepia Leaves. Click here to see the article.

Yesterday, I cried when I got the email from the magazine and read the Sepia Leaves review in it. I cried because I felt that my parents’ struggle had finally been acknowledged by those with whom I had struggled. The circle of psychiatrists in India, the official magazine of psychiatry in the country, had finally found it worth while to listen/read my story and empathise with it. Click here to see the Sepia Leaves review by Dr Alok Sarin in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry – the official newsletter/mouthpiece of the Indian Psychiatric Association .

My work with psychiatry is not yet over. Some time in the future I plan to work in the area as a counsellor/activist.

Thank you Dr Bhide for not letting me slip away. Thank you Dr Sarin for reviewing the book. Thank you Dr Rao, the editor of the magazine, for putting it all together.

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