Friday, February 27, 2009

The Sunday Haul

For some strange reason I am yet to completely fathom I am drawn to autobiographies and memoirs, especially of writers. Over the years I have collected more than two dozen such books. Sunday’s find was another memoir and this was, coincidentally, by a film critic writing about her husband’s illness and recovery. The book I found last Sunday was Molly Haskell’s ‘Love and Other Infectious Diseases’ that I picked up from a heap of books selling for only ten rupees. It was a paperback and was quite chunky. Molly Haskell, I discovered, is a revered film critic who writes for several top notch publications.

It was a hot day last Sunday as I started my hunt in the morning. After Haskell’s book I saw a good enough copy of Nicholas Monsarrat’s autobiography- ‘Life is a Four Letter Word’ which I already have with me. It was such a good copy that I saw at Abids I was tempted to buy it. However the seller was one guy who quotes abnormally high prices so I avoided buying it. There was also a good copy of Peter Matthiessen’s ‘Snow Leopard’ with the same guy so I did not want to pick up another extra copy. I had seen Elmore Leonard’s ‘Out of Sight’ too but left it.

Every Sunday I come home from my hunt in Abids regretting not buying some book that I had seen. I had seen AK Ramanujam’s book on folk tales of South India which I did not feel like buying since the guy was asking too high a price. But after I got home I realized I should have picked it up. I love his poetry though I haven’t read any of his other works. If it is available next Sunday then it would be the first book I will pick up the moment I land at Abids.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

At a Book Reading- Abha Dawesar in Hyderabad

Whether it was the recession or the desire to promote a new venue or whatever, the book reading of Abha Dawesar’s ‘Family Values’ was held at a place different from the usual venues we Hyderabadis are accustomed to. Not surprisingly, it was a sparse gathering with the usual suspects missing. Maybe the usual crowds that throng such events thought the venue was too down market for them. (Imagine telling your chauffeur to take you to ‘Domalguda’ instead of ‘Grand Kakatiya’ or ‘The Taj Krishna’) The elite ‘literary’ crowd, the sort who come wearing silk kurtas and designer saris, was missing this time. Which was all for good because it really was a short but interesting event.

All through the past week the magazines and the papers were full of articles on Abha Dawesar and her latest book. I got a mail from someone about the reading in Hyderabad and then I came across Brinda Bose’s review of ‘Family Values’ in the latest issue of India Today. The Saturday ‘Weekend Plus’ supplement in the Hyderabad edition of ‘The Hindu’ carried another write up on the author on the last page along with the venue and timing of the book launch. So I arrived at Domalguda expecting a biggish gathering for the reading.

On Saturday evening, Abha Dawesar read from ‘Family Values’, her latest book, at the Vidyasagar Art Center at Domalguda. I was there with Hari, the two of us forming part of the thirty-odd crowd that gathered to listen to the young and accomplished author who also paints and is also into photography. There weren’t many questions though Hari asked most of the interesting ones- about her decision to write the book without having actual names, about whether she was tempted to give her characters real names afterwards, and about writing from a boy’s point of view. Abha Dawesar elaborated on how she wrote the book and that it took her three years to finish writing after some major structural overhauls.

The author had said that the book was black, white and grey with no colors just like her drawings. I may have to wait for a while to find out because I have to first finish reading Moritz Thomsen’s ‘The Saddest Pleasure’ and Molly Haskell’s ‘Love and Other Infectious Diseases’ before starting ‘Family Values.’ Then there is her other book, ‘That Summer of Paris’ that Hari picked up that I plan to read later. If they are any good as the reviews say I'll read the other two books she has written- 'The Three of Us' and 'Babyji.'

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Sunday Haul

Two Lucky Finds

Last Sunday I got lucky again finding books which turned out to be bestsellers of sorts. The two books were by authors I haven’t read about anywhere. To be honest I had not heard of Charles Willeford or Moritz Thomsen either before I found their books at Abids last Sunday. These two books also had another common coincidence- they were linked by two authors I like - Elmore Leonard in case of Charles Willeford and Paul Theroux in the case of Moritz Thomsen. Though the two books cost me a hundred bucks I am glad I found them.

About four weeks ago I came across a travel book at Abids that had an introduction by Paul Theroux. Now, Theroux isn’t the sort to write introductions to books by authors whose works he doesn’t know too well so when I saw Moritz Thomsen’s ‘The Saddest Pleasure- A Journey on Two Rivers’ I was tempted to pick it up. The guy quoted for an astronomical sum for the book so I backed off. The next day I was filled with regret for not having picked up the book. For the next two Sundays I looked for it but couldn’t find it so I thought someone very smart must have picked it up. I had almost forgotten about it but last Sunday I saw it on the racks and immediately pounced on it. I was prepared to pay any sum for it but I got it for only eighty bucks.

‘The Saddest Pleasure’ wasn’t the first book I bought on Sunday. A few minutes earlier I had come across a book with an attractive and unusual cover that stood out among the piles of books on the pavement. It was ‘The Shark Infested Custard’ by Charles Willeford. I had almost decided to buy the book based on just the cover. (yes, I know one cannot judge a book by its cover alone but I do it quite often) When I turned around the book I found a line at the back that made me buy the book instantly. A line of praise by Elmore Leonard for Charles Willeford goes like this: ‘No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford.’

Back home when I checked these two titles on Amazon I was overjoyed to see that they were sort of classics. Moritz Thomsen seems to be the sort of writer I would enjoy reading. I still cannot believe I picked these two books in such a manner. After years of hunting for books I guess one develops a sort of instinct for the good book.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Woman Driving a Bullock Cart

Though I’ve worked for a number of years in rural areas I hadn’t ever come across the sight of a woman driving a bullock cart. It was one image out of many that I got to see on a two day trip to Karimnagar I made last week. It was another of those official visits to villages that I have been making since the past two months. I am beginning to get bored of these trips because of the mind numbing routine that it involves. We meet the same type of farmers, visit the same kind of fields, ask the same questions and get the same answers. There seems to be no respite from this for a while. However, the only happy thing about last week’s trip was that it was to a place not very far from Hyderabad. Another thing was that I got to travel by a bus, something which I haven’t done in any of the previous three trips. It took us just three hours to get to Karimnagar by bus.

I had to tag along another senior officer who suggested we leave early in the morning. So five thirty on Tuesday last found me at the bus station waiting for the bus carrying the other officer who had got in at another bus station. I was surprised by the number of buses to Karimnagar. There seemed to be one bus every five minutes to Karimnagar. When I got into the bus I was taken back when the conductor made out a ticket from a machine. He pressed a few buttons and voila, the machine coughed out the ticket.

It was still dark as we sped towards Karimnagar. I dozed off and when I woke up we had reached Karimnagar. Our host was waiting with a car. We freshened up at a nice guesthouse- I had an air-conditioned double bed room all for myself. After breakfast we set off in the small car with three of us squeezed into the back seat. We had to cover eight places in two days so we decided we would cover six places and try to squeeze one last place if we had the time on the second day. On day one we planned to visit four villages.

I was under the impression that Karimnagar was a dry place (so much for my knowledge!) I was quite surprised to see that almost all the villages had canal irrigation. The first thing one notices in areas where there is sufficient water is paddy fields. There were paddy fields every where, a carpet of green covering the earth as far as the eye could see. Then I was surprised to see giant harvesting machines in almost every village. The labour shortage has forced many to go for mechanical harvesting I was told. The roads were quite good and not at all dusty save for a couple of villages which was okay with me.

All our visits are to the farmer’s fields and after going around the fields we have to talk to the farmers. Usually around thirty farmers gather at a place which ranges from the shade of a tree to a ramshackle office or rice mill. The first of our meetings was under the shade of a tamarind tree. We sat on plastic sheets and talked to the farmers. It never fails to surprise me how little of the modern farming techniques our farmers know. I feel sad that we as a department have failed to reach out to the farmers. But the farmers are eager and it is always a memorable experience talking to them.

Normally I feel a bit nervous in the presence of strangers so imagine how I feel when I have to address a group of thirty or more farmers in the local language in which I am not totally perfect. But I have learnt from officers more experienced than me under whom I had the good fortune to work. The first of the rules I have learnt was that never to give the impression that the farmers are different from us. One has to start saying some good things one had noticed about the village. Some begin the talk discussing the name of the village if it is an unusual one. Some begin talking about the roads. Some talk about something unique one has seen in the village. One learns the trick of talking to the farmers by experience. I am glad to report here that I manage to hold the attention of the farmers for about fifteen to twenty minutes after which I start to falter and then pick up again until the end. I may not have exactly managed to give a stirring talk but the farmers give the impression that I have told them something new they did not know until then.

Karimnagar also happens to be Naxalite territory, once their stronghold. We went from village to village passing through several small hamlets on the way. I am always surprised that one visits places one never comes across again. I try to take notes of the places and the people, writing down something unusual I notice so I can store it in my memory because most villages begin to look the same after some time. The same roads, the same type of school buildings, the same fields and the farmers dressed in the same clothes- a simple dhoti and a shirt, both invariably white.

After covering two villages we broke for lunch. The food was one thing I won’t forget about these trips. The local officials in their efforts to please us ply us with a lot of food. I am a veggie so don’t have much choice but the others have a variety to choose from- mutton and chicken prepared in a variety of manner. After a heavy lunch in a small office located in a market yard scattered with sacks filled with cotton, we started off for another two villages.

We got back in the evening exhausted but we managed to cover four villages which meant we had to do only three villages the next day. Dinner proved to be another elaborate affair and I don’t understand why the local officers assume the visiting officers have to be fed until they are ready to burst. I am appalled at the amount of food that goes waste. I asked one of them why they had arranged so much food and with irrefutable logic he told me that it was one opportunity they too get to hog some good food. Hearing that reply I shut my mouth and concentrated on the food which was quite good, by the way. I am not describing it here because people will start salivating..

The next day we started off early and it was while on the way to the first village that I came across the woman driving the bullock cart. We were going on a narrow, dusty country road and the car slowed down behind a cart. A woman was getting into the cart and the car driver remarked that a woman seemed to be at the reins. I couldn’t see because I was in the back seat. The bullock cart moved aside and we over took it but I was not able to turn around because three of us were squeezed in the back seat. I wondered whether to ask the driver to stop the car so I could take a picture but I did not. But luckily for me the car stopped after a while because we had reached the meeting place. Bicycles were parked on the dusty road.

I scrambled out of the car and took out my digital camera. I had just enough time to click a picture of the bullock cart with a young woman standing confidently with the reins in her hands. The villagers did not appear to be surprised at the sight but I was sure amazed since all I see women in Hyderabad drive are cars or scooters. This image was the high point of the trip and one which I am not going to forget for a long time.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A 'No Book' and 'Peace at Dawn' Sunday

It was again that time of the month for me to fill up on the monthly dose of early morning solitude at the Necklace Road. Last Sunday I went to the Necklace Road and I reached earlier than my usual time. It was still dark but there were people around walking and playing. Somehow in the stillness of the morning one gets more from life than at other times. I felt that the whole world was mine for the one hour I was at Necklace Road waiting for the sun to come up. As usual, the mind was busy sorting out the issues that needed attention. There was a lot I had on hand that was incomplete. The revision of the book was topmost of the pile of things I am not paying much attention to. I am working on the revision but not at the rate I had planned to. I left deciding to devote more attention and time to the revision and complete it by end of March.

Later I sat in Adarsh with the Sunday papers and whiled away another hour going through everything I found interesting. There weren’t many people in the hotel. I’ve noticed that in the mornings groups of people come for tea and snacks. They sit talking earnestly while sipping tea. Suddenly they all break into loud guffaws, slapping on one another’s shoulders. I guess early mornings bring on good cheer in every one. It feels good to be alone out of the home on a Sunday morning sitting in a cafĂ© and reading the weekend papers without any sort of disturbance.

For some reason I couldn’t find a single book worth buying when I got to Abids a couple of hours later. It was a hot day but the crowds had already started browsing the books laid out on the pavements. Another few weeks, kids and students will flock to Abids looking for books to read in the holidays. The hardcover copy of Peter Mayle’s ‘Tojours Provence’ still lay in the heap of books selling for ten rupees. I had seen it a few weeks ago and now I guess I should pick it up. I had seen Dave Barry’s ‘Homes and Other Black holes’ in another heap two weeks ago but I was unable to spot it this Sunday. I wanted to give it to a friend but I was unlucky this Sunday.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Discovery of Hyderabad

All roads are paths that sometimes lead to new discoveries. In Hyderabad the road itself is the discovery. They also lead one to several discoveries- that potholes can go three feet deep, that traffic jams can last for hours, that most Hyderabadis leave their brains at home when they come out on the road and so on. Every time you get on the road one can look forward to discover something new. Some of the discoveries one can expect to make on the roads of Hyderabad are:

- that there are more beggars at traffic junctions than are people willing to give them alms

- that all cargo more than ten feet in length (like pipes and iron rods) are always transported on slow moving rickshaws

- that city buses always stop in the middle (exactly middle) of the road at bus stops (one has to be a bus driver to know why)

- that most two wheeler riders carry their helmets either at the back of the bike or on their laps

- that Hyderabadi men spit all the time, and from wherever they can

- that Hyderabadi men peep inside autorickshaws like they expect to find Deepika Padukone inside

- that all those who drive the Premier Padmini cars are invariably above seventy year old and wearing the kind of spects with frames that are bigger than windshield of their cars

- that not even the cops follow the traffic rules here

- that all Hyderabadis are terrific gawkers- they gawk at everything in view

The list goes on endlessly…

Friday, February 06, 2009

A Sunday Haul- A Filmi Catch

If I was as crazy about movies as I am about books then I doubt I’d find time to sleep even. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I’m not a very serious buff though I enjoy watching movies occasionally. My last movie was Ghajini. With low interest in movies I haven’t really developed a taste for the good ones which is quite surprising since one of my dreams is to write a movie script before finally dying.

However, I love to read movie reviews. I read practically every film review I come across. Some write lengthy ones and some write short reviews which don’t tell much either about the movie or anything. I wrote reviews for a couple of films for the inaugural issue of ‘WOW Hyderabad’ ages ago. Those were the only film reviews I ever attempted but as I said earlier I love to read film reviews, good ones, that is. I also love to read any book or article related to films and film making.

Sometime last year I found a book of film reviews by a famour critic whose name eludes me at the moment (which also means I haven't yet read it!) Last Sunday I found another book of film reviews by someone said to be a famous film critic. The book I found was ‘Negative Spaces- Manny Farber on Movies,’ the expanded edition. I got this book for hundred bucks and it looks like a good find given the stuff I read on the blurb and also on the net about Manny Farber.

The next find turned out to be a film related book except this was about writing movies-something which I have always dreamt of. The book was ‘The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of Screenplay’ by David Howard and Edward Mabley, which again I got for hundred bucks. It joins the lengthy list of books on writing I am trying to plough through just so I could get everything right in my own book. Time only will tell if this investment will pay off or not.

It could have been a hat trick of sorts if I had also picked up Mira Nair’s book on the making of ‘Salaam Bombay’ that I had come across. I was quite tempted to buy this book too but I didn’t since the voice began in my head again ‘Have you gone crazy or what? You just spent TWO HUNDRED RUPEES’ on two books and you want to spend more??’ Wisely, I didn’t pick up Mira Nair’s book and returned home with the Sunday’s haul which also included latest issue of ‘The Atlantic’ magazine with Obama on the cover.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Sunday of Books

On the first Sunday of the month I have a lot to look forward to- The Literary Review supplement in The Hindu to begin with, followed by the visit to the book bazar at Abids, and then ‘Just Books’ on NDTV in the evening. On the first Sundays there is always too much of books for me.

The Literary Review in The Hindu had an article by the renowned writer Sashi Despande which was a sort of rejoinder to an article by Vijay Nair in last month’s Literary Review. Sashi Deshpande’s article made me glad because I had felt sort of upset on reading Vijay Nair’s article which seemed to ridicule all those readers who had not liked the books of the Booker Prize winners from India.

Vijay Nair’s article makes it out as if the readers were not intelligent enough to see the merit of the books the way the Booker jury saw it, and that the criticism of those books (and their writers) was based on jealousy and other extraneous reasons which have nothing to do with the merits of the books. It was an absurd argument that is insulting of all those who read books by Indian writers.

But Sashi Deshpande’s reply to that article was well argued and turns around Nair’s theories on their heads. She says that just because a book got a prestigious prize doesn’t make it wonderful to all readers. She also questions why we have to whole heartedly accept the valuation of the British Literary Establishment and dismiss the response of readers in India. I guess the reader has a choice to like or dislike books if he or she feels the book doesn’t strike a chord.

Also on the front page of LR was the homage to John Updike by the revered critic- Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. I had not read any of the books mentioned in her article but I have read a few of his lesser known books. One was ‘Assorted Prose’, a collection of his reviews and other articles. Another book that I have read is his collection of short stories, ‘Pigeon Feathers.’ But it is Updike’s ‘It All Adds Up’, a sort of writing memoir that I am looking for all the while. It is difficult to read Updike’s books since they are filled with so many images, observations and asides that one has to read every word very, very carefully so as not to miss anything.

I took out my copy of Writer’s Handbook 2002 to reread Updike’s interview in it in which he talked about the writing life. John Updike said: 'You can only teach so much about writing. You can do some things about point of view and try to clean up spelling and punctuation, but basically, I think, of all the higher arts it’s the most self-taught. You learn through the example of the writers who move and impress you.’ Then there is mention in the same interview about what Alfred Kazin praised Updike with the observation that Updike writes as if there is no greater pleasure.

All of it sounds very true. One learns to write mostly on one’s own. That is what I am doing though I am desperate to do the writing workshops at Iowa or find someone who can teach me a few things about writing. Luck doesn’t seem to be favoring me at the moment but I am sure some day I will get to do the workshops and also find a good mentor.