Friday, February 26, 2010

The Sunday Haul

One major regret about last Sunday that still hasn’t entirely left me is about a book I did not pick up at Abids. I had seen a brand new copy of an Elmore Leonard title lying in a heap of books selling for only twenty rupees. I picked it up and was looking at it and wondering whether to buy it or not. I had almost decided on buying it when my eleven year old kid asked me if I was planning to buy the book when I had three copies of the same title lying at home. I was surprised he remembered the name ‘Elmore Leonard’, the violet colored cover with the title ‘BANDITS.' I had to put it back into the heap, of course.

Back home in the evening, still full of regret, I spotted ‘Unknown Man 89’ that I remembered not having read. What a pity, I said to myself, not finding the time to read Elmore Leonard. Of course, only the other week I had read ‘Swag’ and had also written about the book here. No one who reads an Elmore Leonard title can resist not reading another so I started his ‘Unknown Man 89’ right away and finished it two days later, that is, yesterday afternoon. I was glad I had found it and more glad that I had read it.

UKM 89 is first rate crime fiction. It is another crackling read that zips ahead making you turn the pages eagerly for more of the action, the dialogue and the witty lines. UKM 89 is a novel about Ryan, a process server who gets the better of a con man. Ryan is a cool guy (in Elmore Leonard’s books they are always cool dudes scorching the pages with their lines) who serves summons and legal stuff to people he traces out. He has a friend, Dick Speed who is a cop who helps him out now and then especially in the end. Ryan gets a contract to trace out someone who’s is in for a big windfall provided he agrees to sign an agreement. Ryan goes in search of the guy and gets entangled in some major twists that leave you gasping. The guy he is searching for is dead and the guy who wanted to trace him out is an ex-con, a smooth talking guy called Perez with a burly sidekick, Raymond, who does all the arm twisting on Perez’s behalf. Ryan falls in love with the dead man’s widow (Denise) and things get complicated as Ryan tries to outwit Perez at his own game. In the end Raymond is shot dead in an action scene that is one of the best I have ever read. UKM 89 is the sort of book that can be written by the one and only Elmore Leonard, who is truly a master.

After finishing UKM 89 I wished, like always, I could learn to write from such a master. I believe that the truly successful and accomplished masters are the ones who give out the secrets of their success. In short they do not hesitate to teach those who want to learn something from them. In an interview in ‘Writer’s Handbook 2002’ Elmore Leonard says that paragraphing is extremely important to keep the flow of the story. He says that he learnt the trick of making dialogue pull along the story. There are some more gems of advice in another article of his that I read in ‘Writers on Writing’ Volume II. This same article has been expanded in the form of a book ‘Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing that I have not been able to locate.

Anyway, last Sunday I happened to find Joseph Wambaugh’s ‘Lines and Shadows’, his second non-fiction book after ‘The Onion Field’ that I remember reading a long time back. I had also read his ‘The Choirboys’ which was my first Wambaugh book and I was mighty impressed by his writing. Wambaugh hasn’t disappointed in ‘Lines and Shadows’ which can be described as ‘searing’ and ‘visceral’ because it gets at your guts if the first chapter is anything to go by. I had thought I would read just the first chapter and read the rest of the book again sometime later when I had the time. But after reading a few pages I have decided to read the rest of the book even if the revision of my novel is delayed a couple of days.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A 3D Perspective

It is not very easy to maintain one’s balance and perspective when one’s job involves going deep into the villages six days a week, spending the night in a small town and going home in the city for a little more than a day in a week. Of late I am doing just that- living in a small town, traveling in villages six days a week, and coming home to the city once a week on Sundays and holidays. It is a little more than six months since I am doing this mind numbing routine and I have not yet got used to it. It isn’t entirely new though, this experience, to me since I’ve led a similar life nearly fifteen years back when I first joined this job in a godforsaken part of the state. At that time I had this experience for three and half years without a break. Maybe it is one reason why I can't help having a healthy contempt for those who live in the cities (especially Hyderabad) leading comfortable lives with 24X7 power supply, good roads, lot of hotels and every comfort one can imagine. Of course, I don’t detest everyone but only those who don’t have a clue about life in the countryside.

I had never imagined that I would be doing a job that would take me into the villages to work with farmers. It is only one thing I like about my job and nothing else. I am glad I am having such an experience because not many are fortunate to know about life in the villages almost on a daily basis. Mahatma Gandhi was not very far off the mark when he said that India lives in the villages. For those who don’t know, to begin with let me say it is where the food we eat comes from, from the fields, that is. I don’t want to talk here about how hard the farmer toils to grow his crops because one cannot understand it unless one sees it with one’s own eyes. Even after seventeen years in this job I am yet to fully comprehend the range of troubles the Indian farmer has to face. The biggest problem, in my view is that of social discrimination. Every one tends to place the farmer on a lower scale of importance. Just because he wears a dhoti, does manual labour and works in the fields farmers are treated like they don’t deserve any respect. They think that every one in the villages is a country bumpkin. This is what I hear almost every day in every village I visit. Country bumpkins they might be, but they are open, deferential and are a lot more sensible when it comes to certain things. At least they don't pee in full public view like they do in Hyderabad.

There have been a lot of changes in the recent years- we have mobiles phones with more features than we can understand, we have more satellite channels than we can watch, we have faster planes, important medical breakthroughs and what not but the farmer is at the same place he was decades ago. The crops are the same, the yields are the same and just about every thing is the same except the prices which are beyond anyone’s reach. Even after twenty five years I foresee no development. Sometimes it is frustrating to learn that farmers are not aware how much fertilizer to use, what pesticides to spray and other vital information he must have to grow a better crop. Even after so many years with so many technological advances if the farmer is ignorant then it isn’t likely that he will learn in the years to come. Something must be done to improve things in the villages, especially for the farmers. Sometime in the future I hope to address this issue in my own way, on the national platform. Watch this space.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Sunday Haul- Three Books and a mini-review

(Ian Rankin, Milan Kundera, and Hugh Leonard)

About three weeks ago when he was making a lot of news in the Indian press, I came across Ian Rankin’s book at Abids on a Sunday. ‘Tooth & Nail’ was the book I saw. Only a couple of days earlier I had read a lengthy interview of Rankin by Prakash Karat, the Communist leader, in ‘The Hindu’ daily. Some more days later another interview of the writer was carried in the Metro Plus supplement of the same paper. This time the interview was at Chennai and the interviewer was curiously, not a journalist but a top cop- an IGP of the Tamil Nadu Police department. Which goes to show that Ian Rankin has readers in pretty top places. Shortly afterwards there was a write up on Rankin in ‘The Week’ magazine. Of course, I read all the interviews and was sufficiently curious to know about the writer and his books, especially the Inspector Rebus series.

So last Sunday I picked up his book- ‘Tooth & Nail’ which was still on the rack unsold. I guess there aren’t many people in Hyderabad who read his book or if there are, they are the sort who don’t come to Abids to pick up second hand copies. They'd rather buy them new. Anyway, I got the book for the jaw dropping price of ten rupees only. It was a book in the Inspector Rebus series. I have already started reading the book and found it engrossing enough to continue reading it. However, I was not very impressed and I guess it is because only the day before I had finished reading Elmore Leonard’s ‘Swag’ that I had found two weeks ago.

Needless to say ‘Swag’ is another fine novel by the master of crime fiction, Elmore Leonard. It was an unputdownable book that has some pretty terrific action and trademark Elmore Leonard dialogue with razor sharp wit. It is about two men Stick and Frank who team up to commit armed robberies of liquor stores etc, and have a nice time enjoying the loot. Trouble begins when Frank convinces Stick to take part in a heist of a supermarket that is planned by another guy who brings in his own team of hoodlums. Stick is reluctant and thinks it will go wrong. As expected it goes wrong with a couple of killings. There’s a neat twist in the climax with another dose of killings. Stick is a gutsy and cool character who is the smarter of the lot. However I was a bit disappointed with the ending when Stick and Frank are arrested at the airport while trying to flee. I had expected Stick to get away with the money but the smart cop ‘Cal’ nabs them. It is a great read though with a superb plot, action and as usual, some great dialogue.

Back to the Sunday haul, another book I found after picking up Ian Rankin’s ‘Tooth & Nail’ was Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ that I have been meaning to read since long. Only hitch was I wasn’t able to find a copy at Abids. Last Sunday I found one that I picked up from a heap of books selling for twenty rupees. The copy was formerly owned by a ‘Nancy Lawrence’ of Seattle according to the neatly stamped address on the flyleaf, that included the phone number neatly written in black ink. I wouldn’t do such a thing, leave my name and number on my books. I don’t even write my name on my books save for those I really value.

The last haul of Sunday was an autobiography of a playwright- Hugh Leonard titled ‘Home Before Night. It is first of the two book autobiography. I picked up mainly for two reasons. First, because it was by a playwright, a species I am finding increasingly interested in and two, because it was a Penguin edition with an interesting type face called Monophoto Photina. If ever my book gets accepted by any publisher I am going to ask them to do the book in this typeface. Meanwhile, I have to keep looking for the second book of the autobiography- Out After Dark.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Six Months in Suryapet

It isn’t such a small town though I keep calling it a small town but it isn’t very big either. But if you consider that you need an autorickshaw to ferry you across town then one can call it a big town. Another thing, it’s got a CCD outlet, even if it is five kilometers out of town. A CCD outlet is something not many small towns in the country can boast of. As if having a CCD wasn’t enough for me, recently, another new joint opened on the opposite side of the town, this too five kilometers out of town and like CCD, on the highway. ‘7’ is the name of the place which is swank, neat and very hip considering its located in nowhere land. I’ve been there once and found it extremely good, notwithstanding the fact a masala dosa is forty bucks for which money I can get four in town.

No place that has three bus stands can be called small. Most towns I passed through had two. Suryapet has three, which makes it a big town. One is in the middle of the town, the Old Bus stand, which is not exactly a bus stand but a smallish ground where the buses enter. This is the place where most of the action is, with villagers swarming all over the place because this is the bus stand from where the buses to the surrounding villages start from. The road to the bus stand and around it abounds with the kind of small shops that sell things the villagers need to buy in a hurry. Then on the main road is another bus stand, the New Bus stand or Nalgonda bus stand where the buses to other places in the district stop. Finally, there’s the Hi-Tech bus stand, called so because the ‘Hi-Tech’ Express/Luxury/Volvo buses on their way to and from the capital stop. It is a long way off from the middle of the town from where the auto guys charge ten bucks to take you.

Anyway, that’s just to show how big (or small) Suryapet is. It even has an engineering college so that makes it not a very small town. However, it isn’t a town one can stay for too long in without getting portions of one’s brain permanently unhinged. Last week I completed six months of stay at Suryapet. Another six months and I could perhaps look forward to writing a book titled ‘A Year in Suryapet.’ It isn’t likely though because our office is going to shift to another town, the district headquarters of Nalgonda in another couple of months. In any event, what with I’ve experienced in Suryapet so far it is unlikely that I will write ‘A Year in Suryapet’, so rest easy.

But one experience that I found unforgettable is that of having one’s office bang next door to the local government hospital. It is quite distressing to be in such quite proximity to a hospital. On days when I don’t travel in villages I sit in my room in the office, just a few meters from the hospital that I can see through the window. Whenever I hear the sound of an ambulance siren coming closer to the hospital, I become anxious. A couple of minutes afterwards, depending on what the ambulance brought in, I hear loud wails of the women folk. It means that someone has died. The louder the wails the more tragic the death or the patient was a youngster. The next morning I read in the papers about it and feel sad for no reason. So that’s one thing in Suryapet I can never forget.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Sunday Haul- Surprises Galore

I’ll bet my last month’s pay that not many of us would have known about an item of news that we are used to hearing quite regularly in Hyderabad. The welcome news item is that of yet another new hotel opening in Hyderabad. But this isn’t just any other hotel but a big name hotel no less. Anyway, not until I read the latest issue of Condé Nast Traveller did I know that the Taj Faluknuma Palace is slated to open sometime this month. The first surprise was that I got to read about apna Hyderabad in a magazine I least expected to mention Hyderabad. The second surprise, in case you did not notice, was finding the latest issue (February 2010) of Condé Nast Traveller at Abids last Sunday.

For a long time after going through a lot of issues of this magazine I was convinced that it would never happen but at last the impossible has happened. Hyderabad has been mentioned in this classy travel magazine- the Condé Nast Traveller- even if it was just a two paragraph write up about what’s happening in Hyderabad, as if anybody other than Hyderabadis care. The fact that Hyderabad made it to the magazine is in itself a big surprise, at least for me. Apart from the news of the opening of the Taj Falaknuma, the other mention was about yet another place of interest- not Charminar, not Golconda, but of Paradise Hotel. I’m not complaining though because there are people in Hyderabad who can’t tell you the way to Charminar but can tell you how to get to Paradise. These are people who will not tell you the time of the day but will describe in detail the shortest way to Paradise and even will change their plans to take you there if they have nothing interesting to do or if it is meal time. This occurs if you happen to be: a) look like someone new to Hyderabad or b) look like someone who cannot make it to their own homes without the help of sign boards.

So, that was the first surprise- finding the February 2010 issue of Condé Nast Traveller. It had a delightful piece by someone called Antonia Quirke about spending time in Skyros. There was a lengthy article about Tamil Nadu. An ad for Olympus E- P1 caught my attention and I wonder when I will be able to lay my hands on a good camera. There were a lot of other articles accompanied by beautiful pictures in the magazine. This was of course in the British edition with ‘Traveller’ spelt with a double ‘l.’ The issue was slightly damaged but who cares. I went ahead and bought it for only twenty rupees. In case you’re someone in Hyderabad who has bought it for the regular price (600+ bucks) then eat your heart out or begin coming to Abids now and then.

The other pleasant surprise of the Sunday was finding a book by one of my favorite writers- Elmore Leonard. I found his novel ‘Swag’, a decent enough copy that I bought for just thirty bucks. It is one of his few novels that I don’t yet possess. The other titles that are missing from my collection of Elmore Leonard novels are: Valdez is Coming, Forty Lashes Less One, Mr Majestyk, and Gun Sights. On the cover of ‘Swag’ was a blurb by a writer who has of late made it to the news in India- Ian Rankin, who said that ‘Elmore Leonard is the crime writer’s crime writer, king of all he surveys.’ Interestingly, I had seen an Ian Rankin title that I missed buying. Next week maybe I will pick it up.

Of course, being the first Sunday of the month, there was ‘Literary Review’ to wake up to. There was Pradeep Sebastian’s tribute to JD Salinger whose death I am still not able to overcome. I’ve read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ several times and the last I read it was about six months back when I moved to another small town after a transfer. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and Herman Raucher’s ‘Summer of 42’ are two books that I can read any number of times.

There was a new column in LR called ‘Lit by Books’ by Nirmala Lakshman. This month’s piece was on Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ that I hope to find someday at Abids. Then there was yet another surprise- a review of a book written by a blogger whose blog I read regularly. The book was ‘Chai, Chai’ by Biswanath Ghosh and the review was a positive one which reminded me that I have forgotten to buy the book. Biswanath Ghosh is a fountain pen lover which is how I came to know about his blog after reading his Sunday column that he used to write when he was working with ‘The New Indian Express.’

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

In the Witness Box

Life isn’t really like what and how they portray it in the movies, Indian movies at least. People don’t fall in love like they do in the movies, people don’t bash up baddies by the dozen, people don’t drive like they do on the screen. Our impression of so many things is influenced by movies that when we actually face similar situations we are surprised that it is otherwise. Something similar happened to me when I attended a court for the first time in my life to give evidence before a magistrate.

Sometime in December of the year 2008 I happened to be, though unwittingly, involved in an operation to catch a corrupt government servant. Like many things in my life, it led to more that what I bargained for. I am now a prime government witness in three cases one of which involved seizure of whiskey bottles in the house of a government servant. Two weeks ago I received summons from the court that I had to attend the court on so and so date. Ever since I received the summons my anxiety levels shot up to unprecedented levels because I have never been to a court in my life. Of course I have been to the courts but have never stood in the witness stand and given evidence before a magistrate in a packed court room. Years ago I almost appeared before a judge but thanks to my stars it wasn't to be.

Nearly two decades ago when I was in the second year at college and still being subjected to ragging, our seniors forced us to stand in for some other students involved in a police case. I was nervous as hell when we reached the court in the Old City. I wasn’t alone and I had three or four of my friends with me who too were very nervous. I wondered what would happen if the impersonation attempt became known. I would have had the experience of not only being inside a court hall I would have also had the experience of being inside a prison. Luckily for us, the hearing did not take place that day and we were able to breathe free. That was the sort of ragging we were subjected when we were in college. Anyway, last week once again I found myself in the court anxiously awaiting my turn.

It wasn’t at all anything like they show in the movies. I had expected a large court hall filled with the general public. There would be a wooden witness stand, a robed judge and all that one sees in movies. The hall I went in was a small one; there wasn’t anyone inside except lawyers. There was no witness stand and there was no gavel banging magistrate. I stood outside in a crowd of petty criminals and thugs, mostly bootleggers, waiting to be called in. The government lawyer took me inside and I entered nervous, anxious as well as excited. But the disappointment was complete when no one in the court produced the Holy Book wrapped in red cloth for me to lay my hand on while I took the oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. I gave evidence not to the magistrate who turned out to be a lady but to the steno sitting beside her. The magistrate was busy handling other cases while I gave my version of the things that happened a long time back. I tried to recollect as much as I could.

Minutes before we entered the government lawyer had shown me the statement I had signed as a witness so I could remember a few details. It helped me face the cross examination. This, however, went according to the movie version. The lawyer on behalf of the accused tried to put me in a spot by asking unexpected questions. I looked at him in the eye and corrected him when he tried to mislead me. On a couple of occasions, I am rather pleased to say, I had the upper hand. He had thought I would be another meek government witness but got a mild shock when I corrected him when he tried to make me parrot whatever he was saying. Though I felt I had given the correct version, going by the proceedings it appeared like the case was a goner. I will know about it in a couple of months from now.

Out of three cases in which I am the main government witness this was the first case that came for hearing. The other two are major cases, one of them being a sensational case, that of a senior cop being caught red-handed accepting a bribe. (See Dec 2008 posts) I expect to be grilled thoroughly but after last week’s experience I am not going to take any chances. I am going to appear before the magistrate to give evidence fully prepared.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Sunday Haul

The order in which I prefer to read different forms of literature is something that developed over the years. Non-fiction like essays, articles etc is what I like to read before anything else. Next is fiction, mostly thrillers and crime fiction. If I don’t find any of these I settle for poetry, though I cannot read too much of it in one spell. It is something to be enjoyed in short bursts, one poem at a time. But the only form I haven’t yet developed a liking for is plays. So far I’ve read a few of Shakespeare’s plays only and no other plays. There’s something about plays that I am not able to understand, not that I have attempted to. I know some of my favorite authors have also written plays- Maugham, Arthur Miller and others have written plays but I couldn’t get myself to read any of their plays. Though I haven’t read many plays I have managed to read an autobiography of a playwright that I found very educative.

It was by immense luck that I came across Moss Hart’s ‘Act One’ a few years ago at Abids. It is his autobiography in which Hart writes about how came to be writing plays and succeeding in that form. Since it was the kind of books on writing that I like I devoured it. It was in ‘Act One’ that I first read about the talented and successful George Kauffman. Sometime later I began to come across the name of Harold Pinter. But I don’t remember ever coming across the name of Lajos Egri though it sounded very familiar when I came across a book recently.

Sometime last week I spotted Lajos Egris’ ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ at a second hand bookstore in Begumpet. On the cover it was written that it was the classic guide to writing a play (the original of its first edition was ‘How to Write a Play.)Even otherwise I would have bought it anyway because it appears to have some great advice on story telling. It was a brand new book that I got for two hundred rupees which seems fair enough a price for such a book. I did not find anything at Abids on Sunday so I was content with this book that I hope to read soon. It might help me understand why I don’t like plays as much as I should.

Lonely Planet Magazine in India

On Sunday I read somewhere that ‘Lonely Planet’ travel magazine will be available in an Indian edition very soon. That was welcome news. Only recently have I come across this magazine at Abids and actually found two recent issues. I have no idea how much the magazine will be priced but I am sure looking forward to reading it. Lonely Planet has its own distinctive style of travel writing. I guess it is time for the local travel magazines like ‘Outlook Traveler’ and the one by India Today to be ready to face the onslaught of a global magazine.

The other day while surfing channels I came across an interview of Tony and Maurice Wheeler of LP Magazine on ET Now channel. They were being interviewed by one Abha Bakaya in a boat. I had caught the ending of the interview so missed what they had to say about the launch of Lonely Planet Magazine in India. One question that’s on my mind is if Lonely Planet is now in India can Conde Nast Traveler be far behind?

Ian Rankin Everywhere

All of a sudden one saw articles, interviews with Ian Rankin everywhere one looked. There were two articles in The Hindu including an interview with Rankin by Prakash Karat who, I read, is a fan of Ian Rankin. There was another article on Rankin in Sunday’s Indian Express. The Week magazine too carried a feature on Rankin in its latest issue. I had seen a book by Ian Rankin at Abids this Sunday but somehow did not feel like buying it. But now after reading all the stuff about him maybe I will pick it up in this Sunday’s visit to Abids.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Trips to Nowhere

The Trips to Nowhere

In my dreams I travel to places like Tuscany, Provence and the Azores, whereas in reality I am traveling to places with names like Iskilla, Kakkireni and Jiblakpally. This was sometime last month and two days ago I had been to a place called Ogod. I guess it is an example of where you can expect to go if you work for the government. It cannot get any worse than this for someone who dreams of being a travel writer. Not that it isn’t adventurous enough but somehow official trips take on a different hue that very few enjoy reading about.

In the last week of December or so while on a two-day whirlwind official tour that I made on my bike I traveled to the three places I mentioned above. In those two days I covered something like four hundred kilometers traversing interior back roads, deep in palm tree territory where one comes across toddy tappers pouring freshly collected toddy into cupped palms of those who like to have it straight from the pot. It was another time when I wished I had my camera.

Though the trip was a backbreaking one I was glad I did it. I went alone and it felt great riding on roads where one doesn’t come across a soul for mile together. It is hard to believe it is a place not very far from the city, barely fifty kilometers out of the city. Not many know that thirty kilometers out of Hyderabad the villages begin. I traveled through countless villages in those two days stopping only at four places to meet people from my department. Many an official jaw dropped when they saw me on a bike. Maybe they did not expect me to come on a bike or maybe they did not expect me to come at all because there was a bandh and rasta roko on those two days.

The day before yesterday I went to a place called Ogod. I had an ‘Oh God’ moment there when I reached a medium sized irrigation dam that was filled to the brim. The sight of the endless stretch water disappearing into the horizon was balm to the eyes. It was a pleasant surprise coming after days of travel to nondescript villages. It was also one moment when I again wished I had a camera that worked.