Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Why men love bitches"

I see an American Chinese immersed
in coffee in left hand and a book on her lap.
She raises the book with right hand.
The title titillates me:
"Why men love bitches"

I look at her and wonder-
how many will she get rabid, and how many
will she bite at the neck and how many
will she swallow and how?

Oct, 2006


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Indian authors I've read and plan to read

Here is the shortlist:
Hindi: Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar', Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Premchand, Phanishwer Nath 'Renu', Shivmangal Singh 'Suman', Dharamveer Bharati
Classical: Tulsidas, Ved Vyas, Kalidasa, Ghalib, Mir, Bullay Shah, Bihari
Translated: Thiruvillur, Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya
English: Salman Rushdie, RK Narayan, (VS Naipaul), Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Agha Shahid Ali, Sarojini Naidu, MK Gandhi, Shashi Tharoor, KC Kanda, Jeet Thayil, Nehru,


I plan to read Vedas, Kalidasa, Upnishads, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas in Sanskrit/Hindi, as well as Bhakti poets (Tulidas, Rahim, Surdas, Kabir, Khusrao, Bullay Shah). I have made attempts at reading some of these and discourses on them. But I think religious epics require a maturity, which I shall arrive at in due time and then I will immerse myself in them completely. Be it Bhagvad Gita or Vishnu Puran, my attempts have been encouraging. Add to this list Arthshastra by Kautilya (Chanakya), Kamasutra, Geet Govinda, Gurbaani, Max Muller's treatises, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. I plan to get to poetry and metaphysical texts from Hindi of seventeenth and eightenteenth centuries. Upnishads turned out to be harder to comprehend than I ever imagined, and I found out that Puranic Sanskrit is much simpler than Vedic Sanskrit. If I were as rich as Ambanis, I would start University of Ancient Studies and rope in people to read through these texts and promote broader readership for them. I must thank Geeta Press, Gorakhpur for making most of these texts available to us at cheap price and good enough text quality.

I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comics. A thick Panchtantra by Vishnu Sharma was my favorite. It used to lie next to Aesop's Fables, and Mahabharat ke Mahapran Mahatma Karan (we lost that book to someone before I was old enough to comprehend it).

I hope to get to more of Ghalib, Mir and other Urdu poets as well as learn Farsi over the coming years. So far KC Kanda has been my sole source of English translations for many eminent Urdu poets. He has published bilingual editions that encompass Ghazal, Rubaiyat, Nazm, etc. I have read many of the classical Urdu Ghazals but they have too many Arabic, Persian and obsolete words in them. For closure, let me add that I have read Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, Sindabad and bits and bytes of Arabian Nights translated into Hindi and English, and these maybe considered part of Indian culture for we have ingrained so much of these into our folklore and customs.

Agha Shahid Ali (for example in Call me Ishmael Tonight) succeeds in getting Ghazals into English, and I must procure his other books and translations from somewhere . He was a Kashmiri poet, who died a few years back, and is known in US for his attempts at educating poets about what a Ghazal ought to be.

Modern Indian Fiction and Poetry

Bankim Chander Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore are the ideal points from where the story must start. Anand Math, an extraordinary political fiction, is a transcript of Bankim’s genius. I once wrote a term paper about Anand Math, the book where the revolutionary mantra of Vande Matram was born. Bengal followed up with a whole new generation of poets and writers after Bankim, and Rabindranath Tagore (Gurudev) stands out as the brightest star. His collection of poems Gitanjali won his the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 and the honor of composing Indian National Anthem too went to him. The English translation is said to be the reason why he won the acclaim, though I am told that the Bengali songs are the most delightful. I have read his other poems too, but I always found them meandering into themes that combine the Indian philosophy with deep social and religious themes, and hence were always too heavy for my taste until few years back. The poem “Where the mind is without fear” conveys his dream India. His poems are well-known, well-read, but his two novels Gora and Ghaire Bhaire (The Home and the World) haven’t somehow caught much attention of present readers. The novels are classics (made into movies too), and provide a very enlightening perspective to Indian society at the break of 20th century. (All read in translation). If you have seen Choker bali, you'd see what kind of storytelling Tagore was capable of.

The sensuality that persists in undertone in Tagore and Bankim is carried forth by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, who ran profit from the growing world of Bengali readers. In translation as well as on screen, he emerges as a delightful storyteller. We must note here that old Bimal Roy's Parineeta does more justice to his novel as does the older Devdas. Isn't it tragic that very few filmmakers of our time have bothered to look at novels for storyline that can be captured in cinema? Bimal Roy, Rituporno Ghosh, Satyajit Ray are notable exceptions, as is Vishal Bharadwaj. Hrishikesh Mukhejee, Gulzar and Basu Chatterjee were intellectuals nonetheless. Sudhir Misra, who made Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi, seems to be an erudite one again.

I never had a chance to read Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh (except Santa Banta jokes book, which is funny indeed) and Nirad C Chowdhary who perhaps constitute the next generation. But another writer of their generation, R. K. Narayan, with Malgudi Days and The Guide, has been one of my eternal favorites. Swami and his friends, a story of nine year old, is a simple, heartfelt tale, that is full of details and delights of childhood. We must thank WB Yeats for writing a foreword to Tagore's Geetanjali, and we must thank Graham Greene (The Heart of the Matter*) for getting Narayan
to print. Narayan is often compared to Chekov and Gogol, but I personally feel his stories are simpler and have a better narrative. Also, it seems we need Yeats or Greene to give our writers a stamp of approval before we can appreciate how good they are.

You may have not heard of the Pakistani writer Sadat Hasan Manto. His short stories carry the pain, the bite, the horrors of partition and are really well-written snap shots based on events in the darkest era of Indian and Pakistani history. Even the translations into English are formidable. The writer had a stint at covering Bollywood as reporter in 30s I think, much like Munsi Premchand who failed as a script-writer for his realism never deserted him.

Munsi Premchand or Dhanpatrai Srivastava is inarguably the best novelist and story writer in Hindi and Urdu. His stories blend a realism which most of us are not used to thinking about, with a talent of story telling that rests on simple narrative and colloquial language. We are indebted to him for penning classics like Godan, Nirmala, stories in Mansarovar and so on. A few English translations are available, though I was able to read the Hindi masterpieces.

There were poets including Bismil, Zafar, Sarojini Naidu, etc. who were involved with Indian freedom struggle. I wish to read them. (Mehdi Hasan's rendition of Bahadur shah Zafar's Baat Karni Mujhe Mushkil kabhi Aisi to na thi is phenomenal).

Phanishwar Nath Renu makes to my list next, for his Maila Anchal* (The Soiled Border) in my opinion is a post-modern classic on rural India. It is set in Bihar in 40s and 50s, captures the social, economic, political, regional, religious, caste-based and historical contexts of our present day India in a brilliant novel that sets all these as a background score to a story that captures love and romance between Doctor babu and Kamla as delightfully as it captures the feelings of Laxmi (a keepsake of Mahanth), or of Bauna Babu (a Gandhian who looses hope in independent India). Maila Anchal, in my opinion is most significant novel that has emerged in India in past fifty years or so. Renu succeeds in presenting a detailed description of the life and worries at the ground level, in rural India, in real India. Besides, it contains mention of lots of folksongs and folk-lore, as well as nature and regional beauty in Bihar. It might surprise some that the Doctor Babu mentioned in Novel was based on a real Doctor who was alive five years ago (I don't know if he is still alive). Teesri Kasam was based on Renu's story Maare Gaye Gulfaam.

Vikram Seth: A poet par excellence, his novel in verse, Golden Gate*, called “Byronesque” by some critics, is a heart-rending story, metered and rhyming, rhythmatic and beautifully painful. (Won him a Pulitzer) The A Suitable boy*, is best described as an epic, a colossal saga written in prose, subtle and simply said is splendid novel set in sixties. It has a series of unforgettable potrayals, and some interesting mentions of Mir's Ghazals. His writings have the variety that quite unparalleled and his life story too is as interesting as his collection of poems All you who sleep tonight* (and Collected Poems).

The years he spent in China translated into a collection of poems by the name The three Chinese poets*, and in The Equal Music* he pays tribute to love and music through a highly emotional novelette. In The Heaven's Lake*, he writes a travalogue about how he hitchhiked through Tibet, and the book describes in beautiful detail the scenic beauty of Tibet, as well as touches upon hospitality of newly made friends, and the tales of their lives. The Two Lives* is a memoir that spans World War II, Nazism, love and relationship between a handicapped, but resolute Indian and a German Jew in England. The memoir is semi-autobiographical and draws a lot from the letters his Jewish aunt kept stowed somewhere.

Salman Rushdie: Seth is simple and charming, Rushdie metaphorical, complex, controversial, sarcastic, witty and has an amazing ability with words. Midnight Children* that won Booker of the Bookers takes you though the whole history and psychology of Indians after Independence, The Moor’s Last Sigh* traverses through a lot of painting and color and underworld drama in background through the lifes and times of 90s. Perhaps most controversial and well known is Satanic Verses*, a typical Rushdie novel with sarcasm that tells tale of a Bombay movie star, with flashbacks, dreams and landscapes that touch upon Muhammad’s life. The novel has enough matter to have haunted Rushdie for years now.

Rushdie has written an enchanting Rock ’n’ roll love epic, The Ground Beneath Her Feet*, and U2 have sung a poem that features there. His East, West* is collection of short stories that have his characteristic wit, and a sort of magical realism (if Gabriel Garcia Marquez is king of magical realism, Rushdie is the crown prince). Haroun and the sea of stories* is a fable he created for sake of his son, and is Rushdie at his story-telling best. He is almost like a grandfather pouring magic and myth into a fairy tale to create a delicious tale of land of Gup and land of Chup.

I wish to read Grimus, Shame and Fury to complete my study of the works of Rushdie. His latest novel, Shalimar, The Clown* is full of references on how Kashmir has turned from land of peaceful coexistance between Hindus (Kashmiri Pandits) and Muslims to a land of prosecution, terrorism and intolerance. The novel, like Two Lives by Vikram Seth, spans over five decades, and spreads across India, Europe and US, deriving from the global knowledge and lifestyle these writers have lived over their lives. Rushdie's essays that appear in various newspapers every now and then are an intellectual delight, and it is a matter of few years before we hail him as the greatest writer India has produced in his generation. A Nobel is certainty. Look up any of the lists online on Best books ever (voting by writers), or Modern Library or Gaurdian lists, and he features in all of them. Brilliant!

I also loved The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (I remember my IIT professor had exchanged it with my Moor's Last Sigh, and he was visibly offended by the contents!), Interpreter of Maladies* and Namesake* by Jhumpa Lahiri (the movie does well to capture the essence, though the latter half is rushed in the movie), The Great Indian Novel* and Riot* by Shashi Tharoor (since he did not become UN Secretary General, he might write more novels. I hope he does not include his poems there) and Love and Longings in Bombay* by Vikram Chandra: (I have seen his Sacred Games on shelves, looks like a thick read, much in tune with size of Shantaram and in content with Maximus City, which I plan to read one day. I hope his novel lives up to the standard he reached in his Bombay short stories).

If Booker and Pulitzer come by, the books tend to get more attention (What did people pick Midnight Children, Golden Gate, A God of Small Things, Interpreter of Maladies?). Yann Martel's Life of Pi may be noted for characters who originate from Pondicherry and carry Indian curries in their blood and words. Dominique Lappierre's City of Joy brings to life a slum establishment in Kolkotta and may would know that a movie with Om Puri and Shabana Azmi was based on it. Mira Nair must be thanked here for getting Vanity Fair and Namesake to screen (and her other movies suggest that she is an author's director. When I am done with my novel, I will be delighted to have her direct a movie based on it. Of course, I will do it on the condition that I pen the lyrics as well).

By the way, didn't you know that William Makepeace Thackerey was born in India, and has a range of references to India, Cashmere shawls, Dum Dum, etc in Vanity Fair. Perhaps you would know that Rudyard Kipling (in spite of his East is east, west is west, Never the twain shall meet) based his Kim and Jungle Books in India. E. M. Forster moved to India to live with a Rajah and wrote A Passage to India, which throws some light on British Raj. Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens occasionally refer to India, usually to poke fun at East India Company babus and Jules Verne has a big chunk of Around the World in Eighty Days set in India. WS Maugham's Razor's Edge is contains references to Hinduism, as it Capra's Tao of Physics.

Ruskin Bond was born in Kasauli, and has written delightful short stories, that most of us encounter in school textbook and school libraries. Kushwant Singh resides in Kasauli as well (and I share my childhood dreams, schooling with Kasauli fog, I so miss it now). There is an unheard of novel In the shadow of Pines which details the history of Kasauli, mostly in context of Lawrence School Sanawar. The writer studied there (and was a student at IIT later!!) I have read stories from Jim Corbett about tiger hunting.

I haven't read much of other female brigade including Lajja by Tasleema Nasreen, Novels by Desai (Anita and Kiran), Difficult Daughters, etc. Amitava Ghosh (The Glass House) has been urging me on from the shelf for a year, Rohinton Mistry is on list as is Misra. I rushed through Five Point Someone and Inscrutable Americans, got some laughs and might read the other books by the respective authors.

Returning to Hindi Novelists, I have Dharamveer Bharati's Gunahon ka Devta lined up as my next read. It is the most read non-English novel in India. As a poet , he wrote Kanupriya which bases itself on Radha-Krishan's story. A fellow blogger Ardra has posted painstakingly done great translations of the same online. We have all seen Umrao Jaan or heard its songs. wrote it over hundred years ago, and like Ruswa, Devaki Nandan Khatri's Chandrakanta was for Hindi, Umaro Jaan Ada was for Urdu, the first immensely popular novels in the respective languages. Like JP Dutta messed up the whole Umrao Jaan plot, Nirja Guleri has had turned Chandrakanta into a laughing stock (Yakku!!). I do wish to read the book and its sequels.

I have (shamefully) little exposure to the works of Dwivedi, Bharatentu Harishchandra, Makhanlal Chaturvedi, Ageya, Bihari, Nirala, Kaka Hathrasi, Maithalisharan Gupta, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, Nagarjuna, etc. Like everyone, I have read Subhadra Kumari Chauhan's Jhansi ki Rani and poem on Jallianwallah Bagh (will read others some day). I have read Mahadevi Verma, found her too exotic and Sanskritized (as was Dinkar's Urvashi). Sumitranandan Pant.Nirala and Shivmangal Singh Suman (chalna hamara kaam hai is my favorite) have been more accessible (colloquial language) and I love a few poems from 'Navin'. I also plan to read Jhoota Sach and Gulshan Nanda's novels one day. I think Hasya kavi Sammelan's have kept the ideal of spoken poetry alive, as have the Bhagwat's (village poojan) and Mushairas. May sponsorship and enthusiasm follow their organizers everywhere!

I have read some stuff from Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghosh, Dayanand Saraswati and likes, but I am willing to read more. In this spirit, I will go and chew some Osho and Deepak Chopra's bestsellers, for they have had enormous impact in US. I am curious about Brahmo Samaj, and Raja Ram Mohun Roy's philosophy. I have read pamplets, magazines distributed by Hindi and Hindu groups, including Gayatri parivar. Like morning broadcasts on TV, I think some of these people do us good by reciting spiritual and metaphysical poems and words that are otherwise left unheard by masses.

The best celebration of Indian Poets occurs in Mathura, in the temple at Shri Krishan Janambhoomi, where all poets and writers of ancient India find themselves decorating the murals in company of Gods and Goddesses.

Two of my favorite poets that I mention last of all.
Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Dinkar rouses me to fight, to run, to outshine the sun. Dinkar glows with courage, machismo. His Rashmirathi must be turned into National Anthem. I can die for his poem Chand aur kavi as well as for Parshuram ki Prateeksha. Bachchan most famous for Madhushala, had an astonishing range of subjects in his kitty. He translated Khayyam from Persian, Shakespeare from English and Ved Vyas from Sanskrit - three greatest poets in respective language translated into Hindi by one of the greatest Hindi writers. It is a national shame that we never revered Dinkar, Renu, Premchand, Bachchan and their peers with the spirit we should. Each one of them deserved at least a Nobel Prize, or our own Bharat Ratna.

I have read a large volume of stories published in all kinds of magazines. Being a fast reader from a young age, I would devor everything I could lay my hands on to: Panjab Kesari from cover to cover, Times of India, Sarita, Grihshoba, Hindi/English Outlook, Manorama, Chandamama, Champak, Suman Saurabh, Dharamyug, and so on. There was poetry abundant in places where you could least expect it to be. Panjab Kesari had 'shers' and movie gossip on the same page it had Krishnavtar stories and articles by well known politicians and writers. I must mention cartoonist Pran, who created Pinki, Saboo, Rocket, Chacha Chaudhary and so on. Laxman was not only R. K. Narayan's brother, but as he himself said it, the best, second best, third best cartoonist in India and if we look at any of the collections of his cartoons, we see how apt his self evaluation was.

Another resource for poetry has been Ghazals and Movies. Be it Ghalib or Faiz or Faraz, they have made their way into our hearts through songs and singers including Jagjit Singh, Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano, Naiyarra Noor, Tariq Aziz, Ghulam Ali, Munni Begum, etc.. Gulzar, Sahir Ludhyanvi and Shiv Kumar Batalavi could have been lost inspite of their Herculean talent, and their social voice had it not been for movies or ghazals. I love them from my heart. Especially Sahir and Batalvi seem to me as voices that require recognition beyond the realm of cinema/music world. Thank you Gurudutt for using Sahir as lyricists in your movies and for directing Pyasa and Khagaz ke Phool, both movies are classic homage to Indian artists and their fate. Rabbi Shergill I salute you for bringing back Bullay Shah and Batalvi to public notice. Be it Javed Akthar, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Anand Bakshi, Shakeel Badayuni, Indiveer or Hasrat Jaipuri, these lyricists have been shining lights of Indian Poetry scene and I value their message most as it reaches more people than the message of academic poets. I must mention Yogesh and Neeraj, rare lyricists in having used predominatly Sanskritized Hindi for their songs, and this I think was a part of their appeal. Of late Prasoon Joshi has shown ample promise.

Do we call VS Naipaul Indian? His books, be it The House for Mr. Biswas* set in Trinidad or A Bent in the River* set in Africa, capture the life of exiles (or resident aliens) with a humanity and wit that makes him one of the foremost writers of our times.

I have read bits of My Experiments with truth and Discovery of India. (I thank Shayam Benegal for making a serial out of it, and also making movies like Sooraj ka satvan Ghoda. Similarly I thank Gulzar for making a serial on Mirza Ghalib, BR/Ravi Chopras for raking money with Mahabharata and Ramanand Sagar for Ramayana. I also thank people behind Malgudi Days, Neem ka Ped, Chanakya, Singhasan Battishi, Chunauti, Hum Log, Nukkad, etc). I will read Mahatma Gandhi's book this year, and Nehru's books in coming years. Vajpayee and APJ Abdul Kalam's poems/books about in market, and I might look through them one day, but I really want to read C. Rajagopalachari's translations.

I have to see more of Mahashewta Devi's work as well as that of Nana Patekar, Meena Kumari and Bal Thackeray. I read Kural in translation, and some of Subramaniyam Bharati's poems, but I will love to read more Tamil poetry and prose. I have found great poems in RSS Handbook, including the poem Hum Kare Rashtra Aradhan (opening credits of Chanakya). I have heard of the untapped talent of Malayalam writers, Vijayan for one, and I intend to pursue their translations. Amrita Pritam and Sahni are on my list. Like Urdu, I understand Panjabi to some extent and dream of learning the script some day.

I have read cheap pocketbooks in Hindi. They typically have murder mysteries spiced with scantily clad women (Indian pulp fiction sells like hotcake, only we have no Tarantino yet). It seems that there is enough market for them, a market similar to the market for Mithun's movies and B-grade bollywood. Cheap thrills sell well, as does Hindi Pornography, which by the way contains words and usages that are intellectual delight in their metaphor, allusions, concoctions and origin. IIT Hostel showed me skill set exhibited in some of these and I dare say, reading them aloud to a bunch of guys is a hilarious event.

Lastly, there are authors that I have found online. Poets like Blue Athena, Ano, Asuph, Ardra. Storytellers like Fizo, Atracus, Ixedoc, Ruch, das_wunschdenken . Be it sulekha, desicritics, dudseascrawls, there are some great writers blogging away to free glory. The megastars of online world include Dr Subash Kak (his articles and insight on Indian history, philosophy is amazing), Ramesh Mahadevan (the Chekov or Narayan of desi graduate student experience; if you haven't read his pieces, you have missed great laughs), Rajeev Sreenivasan, Praful Bidwai, Arvind Lawarke, and TVR Shenoy on Indology, Prem Panicker, who has redefined Cricket Journalism, Raja sen and Sukanya Verma for Movie reviews, and so on.

I am sure I have not read too many good books that you might wish to suggest. I am sure I have missed out on some translations, poets, novelists. I left out non-fiction entirely. In blogging world, my reading is limited, (for I am actually working on a PhD that has nothing to do with Public Relations or Politics or Sports or Literature or Movies or Music and I read more stuff related to soft matter physics in a day, than other stuff in a week). I am open to suggestions always, and I am always willing to read and love any author you wish me to try.

(*Have posted book reviews on these before.)
(PS: Article written on request by Aditi @ desicritics.

My friend Amit Gupta made a similar request sometime back, when he asked me for a shortlist of must read Indian books. Here are my top recommendations/picks from last 100 years.:

1. Midnight Children(/ Shalimar the Clown) by Salman Rushdie
2. Maila Anchal by Phanishwernath Renu, (plus his authobiography)
3. Ghaire Bhaire (Gora/Geetanjali) by Gurudev Tagore, supplemented by his predecessor Bankim's Ananth Math
4. Madhushala (/Bachchan ki Pratinidhi Kavitayen) by Harivansh Rai Bachchan,
5. Rashmirathi (/Parshuram ki Prateeksha or Sanchayika (compilation of Dinkar poems)), by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar
6. A God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy or Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
7. A House for Mr. Biswas/A Bend in the river by VS Naipaul
8. Mansarovar/Godan/ everything by Premchand
9. A Suitable Boy (/Two Lives) by Vikram Seth
10. Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh and partition stories by Sadat Hasan Manto
11. Gunahon ka Devta and Kanupriya by Dharamveer Bharati.

(12. Vivek Sharma's novels and poems: work in progress;)!)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A thong in the lab (Short story)

At 9 am, a final year graduate student is the only one awake, and present in the lab. He has spent all his life as a slave student. In last few years, he has become a champion of human rights everywhere. He knows about the laborers and farmers in China are barely managing to survive. He knows the weavers in India, in spite of the price of their carpets, are facing extinction. He suffers like the Chinese laborers, and when his adviser presents his work, without crediting him, he raises a toast to the Indian weavers. Being a Russian by birth, he understands how intellectuals are prosecuted everywhere. Be it revolutions, he says, or democracy, an intellectual bears the burden, of both bringing it on and bringing it to a close, and then by popular demand, pays for it, by his own blood. He sympathizes with the Iraqis under US rule more than he ever did with his fellow countrymen in Communist rule. He admires Castro and Che Guerra. He knows historical contexts under which nationalities love or despise each other and he has read every news worth reading in two hours he has spent in the lab so far. Just by showing up early in the lab, he believes, he has done half a day's work.

The world of physicists has been dominated by males ever since the famous Archimedes ran naked in the street shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" For a pithy law of buoyancy, a law which seems obvious and trivial now, Archimedes celebrated with more passion and nakedness than anyone after him. Nevertheless, perhaps scared that physics labs abound with men like him (or maybe the wisdom of their womanly instinct), the females are a rare sight in these labs. If you ask Vladimir, whose name itself carries layers of history, he will tell you of every female character who has appeared in his lab in last five years, he has spent here. He says, he is living the life of the Count of Monte Cristo before he made his escape and fortune. He consoles himself and his fellow men, by saying, a flower in gallows will only be crushed in hands of us - awkward, thirsty, hungry, haggard, dissatisfied - prisoners. We are prisoners of our own quest of knowledge. The more we know, the more myopic our knowledge seems. And yet, he says, even after spending two or three decades in school, when you go out to work, we have to begin afresh like a Kindergarten schoolboy. Nothing is as described in calculus books. The realm of women, he announces, as another thick smoke escapes his lips, is like this smoke pattern. It changes faster than a man can model it (or simulate it by a model), and it behaves differently every time a man encounters it.

Rusheed, his Indian labmate, often joins him for a smoke. What happens to be Rusheed's second smoke of the day (first is right after brushing his teeth), is usually Vladimir's fifth, and they always go out for it when Rusheed arrives. It is usually thirty seven minutes before lunch, for seven minutes are reserved for smoke, and half hour for brushing up on email and world affairs is necessary to have the discussions with fellow intellectuals at lunch hour. It is said the food tastes like shit (or cowdung), smells like rotten eggs (or carbon disulfide for chemists only), and is bad to ensure you eat less, and focus more on your work.

This is a miraculous day. A thong arrives in the lab at 9:30 am. A thong, blue in color, looks prominent in a lab full of black, metallic components. A thong is second thing that Vladimir notices, after harassing himself with a vision of what lies beyond the valley when the female, with her shirt buttons carelessly left undone, shakes hands with him. A deep thinker, if he is a man, forgets to wear a shoe or a sock, and if it is a woman, she forgets her make-up, her motherly-sisterly-wifely-sexual identity. This is a general consensus reached by Vladimir, Rusheed, Suresh, Chinglee, Bo and Martin. The female is dressed to kill (or as Suresh put it later, is with the right quantum of undress), and he is convinced that she is no deep thinker. The thought comforts him.

Anyway, the blasted thong blares at him. It has appeared in his vision like a question, a sign, a mark of mankind's progress. Wasn't it four or five thousand years of technology and progress that led to such a precise and pretty invention? She is busy tinkering with the knobs on the instrument she needs to use, and he cannot, but admire, the topology, the geometry, the arches of the blue sky and pacific that rises out of her low cut Levi jeans, that covers all that is deeply beautiful perhaps, and is most profound. Vladimir decides to act.

A graduate student shares everything except credit for work. So Vladimir goes online and types a swift message for Rusheed, Suresh, Chinglee, Bo and Martin. He knows Rusheed won't read it till noon, and Chinglee won't either, for Chinglee must baby sit through the day, while his wife goes and works in a restaurant illegally to earn enough to feed a family of three. (Chinglee spells his name as Qinglee, sharing common Chinese belief, that only way to get people to pronounce their names in English is by misspelling them).

Bo must focus on preparing for his qualifying examinations for becoming a full scale PhD student, and hence he has joined English communication and comprehension class. As homework assignment, he has to go clubbing every night, and only when he can talk his way to a stranger's bed, he will be ordained a qualified conversationalist. He has not announced that he succeeded last week, for he has not yet recovered from it. He was surprised when conversation approached him from the most unexpected corner; a six feet, blue eyed, blond hair Californian swept Bo away like he cleans of spider webs on Christmas eve every year. Bo hasn't got over the evening yet, and in five days, he has talked to Californian seven times. Bo is still finding it difficult to believe that he is gay, in fact is happy as gay and must counsel himself well before committing to his new found modern, unorthodox view of sexuality, genetics, love. Meanwhile he cannot stop thinking about the hunk he had an encounter with. He feels, his whole life was leading to it.

Martin won't care for the thong either, for he literally runs the Phi Delta Omega on campus, and as he puts it, has too much on his hands. Suresh shows up, excusing himself from the online chat he was having with this unknown person in India. He is supposed to get familiar with her and decide if she seems better than the others for arranged marriage. He comes from a highly educated and modern family, but it is the family custom that boy cannot see the girl before they get formally married. He must form an opinion based on chat with, and decide if he likes her better than His mother devised the addresses. She said they were numbers partially because their IIT-engineer-turned -physicist son would like them better than names, and partially to avoid any prejudices that names can bring to mind. After all, one must chose his bride without prejudices.

Suresh breaks his chat session, and is in lab within four minutes. It is an established fact that on such occasions a graduate student takes one third of his usual time to reach office. Suresh being a well respected and popular guy, usually requires forty minutes to cover this ten minute leisure pace track, for he must personally greet every fellow Indian on his way. But today he is running hard, and shouting, "late for a meeting, late for a meeting!"

Suresh has sufficient will to avoid glaring at the thong directly. He is in fact committed to make a choice between either 12345 or 43246. While the former has impressed him with her touted talent of making sweets including jalebi, rasgulla and chocolate cream cake, the latter knows French, Sanskrit and Hindi, apart from English and Bhojpuri. The knowledge of Bhojpuri, he says, adds a dimension to her, which will keep them connected with the culture and traditions of his forefathers. Meanwhile, he sees the glitter in the eyes of Vladimir, the brilliance that a thong brings to the Russian's face amuses him greatly. He opens a chat window, and starts the following discussion.

Suresh: "Hello Communist! How is the latest fad of Capitalism affecting you?"

Vladimir: "Mr. Cow Dung. I am quite dazzled. I am thinking of making small talk. But I don't know her boundary conditions, I mean, I am concerned about her , you know.."

S: "Seems you forgot to add some vodka to your morning cuppa. Lack of confidence is a sure sign of it. Want to discuss it over smoke?"

V: "All smoke and no fire! No dude, I will fight it here. But as a disinterested side-burn, why don't you get a conversation started. Withdraw once I move into the arena."

S: "You are a curious character. You want me to bait her. Well, in name of science, I will do it."

Suresh gets into the act. He scratches his hair, stands up, and goes to the female in question, looks her in the eye, and asks her: "Is the meter showing a value about 10% higher than expected?" She bats her eyelids, and says, "I think it is about where my adviser expects it. But are you suggesting that the instrument has zero error?" Suresh has noticed the valley, and feels pleased at the idea of making Vladimir uncomfortable, by ignoring his wish for barging into their conversation. So he tells her that it needs to be checked, and if she wanted, he could run the standard sample, and check for it. She agrees. A passing glance tells him that Vladimir is displeased, but then Vladimir knows how to wait. Also, he knows that Suresh only knows how to talk, and before long, the Indian scruples, the inbuilt guilt hormones, the morality of centuries and all stuff and nonsense which Kamasutra fails to mention, will make him leave the butterfly for the Russian predator.

Meanwhile he listens like a Russian spy. She is from Florida (hence the thong he concludes). She obtained her education in Atlanta, Georgia (and therefore, her southern accent drawls Georgia into a charming tune. He remembers Forrest Gump, and wants to says, "Life (or was it wife?) is like a box of chocolates.") She has just joined Prof. Itsy Wu for a PhD and is new to town. Suresh announces the instrument is quite alright, and then introduces himself. She shakes hand with him now, and says, "I am Candy." Vladimir can hold back no longer, he announces to her, "Err, I am Vladimir." She offers him a smile in return. He has made up his mind, and so no past failures can stand in his way, no lack of indulgence on her part can be a sign to withdraw. Suresh sees it too well, and gets back to his desk. He pretends to read a paper very carefully, while Vladimir pursues the thong.

"Err, hmm Candy. How do you find Berkeley?"

C: "I have been here only for a month. I haven't got a car yet, and I haven't had time to make friends or go anywhere."

V: "Well, you have made two friends now. Err.. I mean we are friends now... I guess Suresh and I can show you around.... Well.... hmmm... Suresh is busy, trying to finish before he settles down with an arranged bride, but I can definitely make time.... He can join if he wants, but he is busy... What would you want to see?"

C: "Thats very nice of you, Wallad-emir. I guess when John arrives in town next week, I would ask for your guidance."

The thing Vladimir hates most is mispronunciation of his name. According to him, a person who cannot pronounce Vladimir right is illiterate to the core. Vladimir is the first name of both Lenin and Putin. Nabokov of Lolita fame was Vladimir as was Kramnik of Chess. (Vladimir has a longer list, the writer apologizes for his lack of consideration for the readers to curtail this informative section). But when Vladimir's name is mispronounced by adviser, he swallows it with bitter humility, and when it is mispronounced by a pretty girl, he accepts it as a charming defect in the manifold of her existence.

But John , the word and the sentence that came with it, seem bothersome. Yet he does not have the heart to ask her, who John is. He'll rather leave it to doubt or speculation, rather than ask her and face the consequences. He has found that approach profitable. If a research problem seems unwieldy, if a question can be asked that will lead him to lose hope or his optimism, he dismisses it at the root, calling it unimportant.

Meanwhile Bo has drifted into the lab, and smells of his lunch. He has made up his mind about the Californian, he is going to "date" him, and sees thong as the first test of his declaration. He is mighty pleased at himself, for he can look at it without being too affected by it. Rusheed almost jumped at the sight of it, and after admiring it for few seconds, rushed away to his seven minutes smoke breakfast. Vladimir cites important an email, which is being typed in Russian, and refuses to accompany him. What he is writing cannot be translated into English without the use of several words, allusions, metaphors, puns, comparisons which would make this story perverted, laced with sexuality, vulgarity or if you are French, without the use of realism, which is as laced with dirt as is with occasional beauty.

Martin enters with eyebrows raised and winks at Suresh, pointing at the thong, while Candy is looking elsewhere. Unfortunately, Suresh sits at a place from where the thong is not visible, and he is too chicken to try any other angle. Martin flaunts his whiskey breath, claiming it is for the socializing from last night and decides to enlighten Suresh. Martin is a great experimentalist, and so he finds a mirror, a lens and arranges for Suresh to have a peek at her. Martin believes that if any international beast wants education in his country, he must be ready to escape from his cultural prejudices and narrow minded beliefs on marriage and sex (and against underage drinking and Iraq war and their choice of President and vice-President and so on). Candy gets a whiff of Martin's effort just in time. Actually Vladimir notices whats going on and coughs aloud, asking Martin, what experiment he was concocting and why? Martin half-replies to him and engages in yet another pointless conversation with Suresh. Meanwhile Candy gets up, and thinking no one will notice, goes to a corner and pulls her pants up. Vladimir is pleased, for his perverted nature, baser instincts have been won over by his desire to know her better, to show her the city, the Bay Area. Suresh sees her a minute too late, and Martin tells him, "You suck, dude."

A month later, Suresh decided to dump 12345 altogether. She wanted to know when he would graduate and never forgot to shoot this question. "A woman who cannot appreciate my problems now will never appreciate them," he contended. "I don't expect my wife to be reasonable, but I expect her to know what things will positively irk me." Vladimir rejoined with, "So that she can irk you when she pleases." Suresh ignored the comment, for the sarcasm was nothing compared to the flaws of 12345. Bo joined the Catholic Church to learn more about the religious beliefs of the Californian, and passed his qualifiers with ease. He will be working in a lull for two years, till a grand final year seduces results out of his unyielding mind.

Martin joined alcohol anonymous. He was in high spirits yesterday, not because he was drunk, but because he said it was first time he went into a bed with a woman in fully conscious state. He said, it was like loosing virginity all over again. Rusheed is still smoking twelve cigarettes a day. Vladimir has gone out on six dates with Candy. He was the happiest man on earth when he got a call from Candy, asking him to drive him to pick John from the Airport and John turned out to be a grey haired puppy. She had left in Atlanta, for he was dismally sick then. Candy has developed a taste for Vladimir vodka, and knows twenty-three people from history who share that name.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Answer to What are you doing these days?

I am on the other side of your computer screen,
typing away the pages of thesis on my machine,
making sketches, plots, sense of scientific results,
and serving my findings in self congratulatory words.

I've been reading and translating poems by Thomas Lux,
and dabbling with gazal-numa shers, or Hindi-Urdu verse,
entertaining ideas that my English poems are worth something
and reading novels by Dickens, Forster, GB Shaw, Kushwant Singh.

Recently I've watched movies like Namesake, Grindhouse, Desperado
and been hearing Ravi Shankar, Mehdi Hassan, Rabbi reach crescendo
I recommend Riding solo on top of the world, Life of the Others, Love's Bitch
and Mediterano, Two sons of Fransisco, Like water for chocolate, Favella Rising.

Like my ping pong ball, from work to movies to poems to beer,
my life these days is full of all that, and yet nothing much dear.

:) (Well.... an impromptu response... its sonnet, if you wish to know)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls

Devsatatingly funny: The satire that launched modern novel in Russia

Nikolai Gogol's Dead Soul launches the 'great Russian novel form' with a satire, so apt and so funny, that the novel remains as one of the most popular Russian text ever. Gogol's own personal life may have been a dire disaster, but as a novelist he stands next to only Tolstoy and Dostovesky, as short story writer only Chekov comes close to his fame, and mind you, he preceded them and their writing. He was, alongside Pushkin, one of the major early forces in Russian literary scene. Since all other major novelists from Russia have delved into tragedies and melodramas, going down to philosophical and religious questions, Dead Souls comes as a relief fun read, rather one of the funniest reads.

In Dead Souls, he provides a cast of unforgettable and hilarious characters in episodes that leave you reeling with laughter. The hero or the anti-hero Chichikov or Tchichikov drives from town to town, buying "dead souls" i.e. dead peasants, assuring landowners that this will benefit them as they would pay less tax on their workforce. The tax was based on census numbers, and since many peasants died between two census years, landowners ended up paying taxes on people who didn't exist. Chichikov's brilliant idea was to collect a long list of (dead) peasants he had bought, and use that for getting a estate for himself. The novel tells us a story after story of his meeting his landowners and getting his purchase by a mix of tact, sweet talk, and so on, each purchase is full of absurd and funny details.

Beyond the obvious laughters, the novel provides a very detailed description of Russia in early nineteenth century. The sketches of nature bring alive similes and metaphors that Gogol (who was a failed poet) uses remarkably well. While the observations related to people, customs, bureaucracy and Russia are full of brilliant wit, they in fact recreate a lively and throbbing world to us. The world as it was. The bureaucracy has not changed much since then. Nor have the quacks and hacks and cheats who make fortunes by buying and selling dubious things. Hence Dead Souls has this undying and translatable humor that will keep this book in publication forever.

I would rank Dead Souls alongside Three Men in a Boat, Catch 22, A House for Mr Biswas and The Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy as the novels that made me laugh the most. It has shades of Tolstoy in details it provides about rural life and rich landowners, shades of both Tolstoy and Dostovesky in pointing to certain moral issues (but that is at most an undertone) and maybe he was the one who influenced the style of his more famous successors. If you haven't read Gogol, you definitely need to pick him next.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ode to a talk talk talk talking machine

You used to talk a lot.
Endlessly amble through words,
kicking pebbles of random thought
and stomp upon my objections.

Your legs were laced with gossip
curvy details of muscles and sin,
I had often held in my hands
new born rumors of your making.

You used to talk a lot.
Time trod like unwanted calf
while your stories milked the past
to exact each sigh and each laugh.

Your hair fell like curtains
but your voice rose beyond them
and even after leaving your room
my head buzzed with your hum.

You used to talk a lot.
So many words, so little meaning,
and who could have known
and who could have thought
what lies you were concealing.

Talk talk talk, talking machine
where where where have you been
what lays tacit in your bosom
a new episode or an amour's blossom
an oath against him,
a sneer against her,
or a new charade preluded
by a tactful whisper.

Talk talk talk, talking machine
what what what have you been doing
watering a miasma with your lies
tending tears in crocodile eyes
how long will your defenses last
future is full of the failures of the past
all the rumors of your making
will require your constant stirring.

Talk talk talk talking machine
won't you say say say say something?

O, how I used to love your talk,
and you used to talk a lot.
Endlessly amble through words,
kicking pebbles of random thought.

Finished in May 07
Stated in 2005? or 06?