Friday, April 30, 2010

The Shimla Trip- Leg Two- Delhi to Shimla

Of the few remaining states in the country that I haven’t yet had the privilege to visit Himachal Pradesh happens to be one state that I quite frequently forget ever exists. That maybe either because of its size or the fact that nothing ever seems to be happen there. So when the chance to visit Shimla presented itself I took the opportunity to check out the map to find where exactly it was located. I had not really expected to be sent to Himachal. I was actually thinking of Kerala so when the call came to go I packed my bags and started off. To be frank, I wasn’t really looking forward to the Shimla trip. Of late my moods haven’t been normal enough to make me eager about traveling. So all I did was book my tickets and hoped for a hassle free trip.

I had planned so that I’d make the journey from Delhi to Shimla by bus during the day. I did not want to miss any sight. My ticket was booked by the half past eight Volvo of the Himachal Tourism that would leave from Himachal Bhavan on Sunday morning. At quarter to eight I presented myself before the gates of Himachal Bhavan after traveling in a taxi driven by a young and pious Sardar with a magnificent moustache. An incredibly dumb security guard would not let me into Himachal Bhavan where I had planned to have breakfast before getting into the bus. After a few phone calls he let me in grudgingly. Inside was an ancient looking restaurant manned by even more ancient looking people. But they were incredibly polite in an old world manner which meant my breakfast arrived about half an hour after I placed the order. All the while stuffing the bread and omlette into my mouth I feared the bus would leave without me. Of course, it didn’t.

The Volvo bus was waiting for passengers. I got in and settled into my seat somewhere in the front. I like to watch the drivers of any vehicle I travel in. Inside the bus it was a bit less hot than outside where the temperature was poised to touch the forties. As the bus raced through the wide roads of Delhi I noticed new flyovers and bridges were coming up. Delhi was preparing for the Commonwealth Games sometime later in the year in October. After a longish stop in ISBT the Volvo was on its way to Shimla. Since it was a nine hour journey from Delhi to Shimla I came prepared with books (Pico Iyer’s ‘Video Night in Kathmandu) and magazines. On Saturday I got a gift of a camera from one of my brothers. Getting the camera ranks as a minor miracle, the sort that take place in my life often. This improved my mood considerably and I looked forward to capturing the sights of Shimla.

Onward we went passing through places like Samalkha (which had a lot of foundries) Panipat, Gharaunda (HQ of Liberty Shoes) Karnal, Madhuban etc. In the open fields I could see heaps of grain drying in the sun. Inside the Volvo bus I could not tell how hot it was outside until I stepped out for lunch at a place called ‘Choupal’ somewhere near Ambala. In the restaurant there was a minor comedy of errors as the waiter served the vegetable pulao I had ordered to an elderly couple who had not yet even opened the menu in their hands. They were baffled when the waiter placed the dish before them. The old lady began serving it into her plate even as I wondered, mouth watering, if it was my dish that they were partaking. When I reminded the waiter about my order he realized his mistake and pulled out the dish from before the couple faster than anything I’d ever seen.

Every time I leave Hyderabad, even if it is just for a day, I make it a point to visit the nearest Irani joint and hog on biryani and Irani chai not sure when I will again be able to taste them. The vegetable pulao at ‘Choupal’ made me nostalgic for Hyderabadi biryani even though not even thirty six hours had passed since I had last tasted it. That is one reason why sometimes I do not want to go on long trips out of Hyderabad. Anyway, after lunch we passed through Lalru, Derabassi, Zarakpur which had a huge mall on its outskirts. Turns out it was Chandigarh. We reached there at half past two and it took us half hour to pass through the place. There was the office of ‘The Tribune’ on whose walls I read the day’s headline about Shashi Tharoor meeting the Congress President. From Panchkula onwards the hills began. We passed Pinjore and finally reached Kalka, a name that I had heard several times. Then came Parwanoo and Baroti where the bus stopped long enough for me to run across the road and have a cup of tea. It was all hilly as we passed through Koti, Dharampur, Kumarhatti, Badoga and Solan where a distinguished looking gentleman wearing a fine cowboy hat and who looked like someone from one of the North Eastern states got down. I wondered who he was but little did I know then that we would meet him again in different circumstances.

It got greener and more beautiful as the bus wound its way through the steep hills. There were hotels everywhere on the roadside offering food and rooms. I was surprised to see no building was more than one storey high. I was even more surprised to see that cars were parked on the roofs that were level with the road. The rest of the building went down and clung to the sides of the hill so one cannot actually see the entire building. The view was beautiful with tall and stately pine trees blanketing the hills. We finally reached Shimla at around seven in the evening. It was already dark and lights twinkled like diamonds on the hills on all sides. Minutes after I stepped out of the bus I realized that I hadn’t packed any woolens. When I had read in the papers a couple of days earlier that temperatures at Shimla had soared high to record levels not reached in the past century I had assumed that it would be quite pleasant. It wasn’t to be so.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Shimla Trip- Leg One

Halfway through Pico Iyer’s ‘Video Night in Kathmandu’ I realized that it isn’t such a good idea taking along such travelogues while one is traveling. It isn’t a good idea especially if they’re travel books written by people like Pico Iyer, and more so if one happens to be an aspiring writer. It isn’t a good idea because reading brilliant writing makes you feel like a hopeless writer if you aren’t one already. Prose like that written by Pico Iyer makes one acutely aware of one’s own limitations. Pico Iyer has an inimitable talent of putting into elegant prose his laser like observations about everything he sees, smells, feels and experiences. One can read all the books he has read, travel to all the places he has been, have the same experiences that he’s had but one simply cannot write like him because he is a genius. After reading a couple of pieces in the book I am nervous about writing this post about my trip to Shimla not that I want to write like him.

Even upto the last day before leaving for Shimla I made attempts to put off the trip or thought of excuses not to make it. For the first time in my life I did not feel like traveling anywhere even if it was to a place like Shimla. So when my train ticket was confirmed which I had hoped wouldn’t happen, I had no choice but to go. I packed my bags and started early on Friday morning, embarking on a long trip that would last more than twelve days. It was a gloomy start because I felt a bit guilty leaving behind my family for such a long time. I would miss my kid very much and I did.

By some strange coincidence, on almost all my trips to Delhi by train, I find I have to share my berth with boisterous groups of people. The last time I traveled to Delhi by train my fellow travelers were a group of trade union leaders of BHEL who talked loudly, non-stop for the entire journey. This time again, I was in the company of a similar group except that these were members of the youth wing of a national political party. In addition to talking loudly, calling out to each other in voices loud enough for the train driver to hear they also gambled with cards all day. I had thought that cocooned in the comfort of the air-conditioned coach I would get time to read and also to think about certain things messing up my life in ways I had not expected.

Forced to sit with the boisterous group I abandoned my plans to read and tried to follow their chatter. They made jokes about their party chief and other office bearers. They were on their way to Jammu so their leader, a rotund guy, made calls ensuring all their arrangements were in place. The only saving grace was that they treated me with a lot of respect even after I revealed to them that I was only a government employee. Either it was the books in my hand or my salt and pepper beard that attracted such deference. If only they knew what I was really!

Only when traveling does one realize that the world is indeed very small. More than seventeen years ago, when I was working as a copywriter in an ad agency, I had a colleague, a Bengali, who had been on a retainer basis with the agency as an artist. He was a fairly senior person and had experience in reputed national ad agencies. Though we got to work together on many campaigns for the two years I worked in the agency I did not know much about him. When I saw him on the train in the same coach that I was traveling I was as pleasantly surprised as he was. He had not changed much but had that relaxed look of a person who had retired comfortably. He told me quite casually that Satyajit Ray, the great film maker, was his cousin. We talked for a long time and I forgot to buy Haldiram Sweets when the train stopped at Nagpur, which meant that I reached my brother’s home in Delhi empty handed.

That was the end of the first leg of my journey, reaching Delhi on my way to Shimla. The next post would be about the journey to Shimla and further to Mashobra.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Off to Shimla

Anyone would have happily welcomed the chance to escape the oppressive Hyderabad heat and to spend a week in Shimla. Though I have got this chance I am unable to feel any excitement about it. In fact I feel a bit apprehensive about the trip. I had not felt this level of anxiety even when I was going to the Andamans for three months a long time back. It is too late now to call it off since all arrangements have been made. Though I've looked for reasons to avoid the trip I haven't succeeded. My train ticket was confirmed at the last moment so there really is no way but to go to Shimla. By the time this appears on the blog I will chugging away in the Andhra Pradesh Express to Delhi.

The bright side of the trip would be the time I will spending with my two nephews. I am looking forward to meet the two tiny kids. After a day in Delhi I will be in a Volvo bus to Shimla on Sunday. I plan to look for Mashobra after I reach Shimla. I heard it is somewhere nearby, about an hour away from Shimla. I'm taking along Pico Iyer's 'Video Nights in Kathmandu' and a book on writing screenplays. If all goes well I might return with a story. But that is not what I am going for. I am on an official trip to get trained at an agricultural institute at Mashobra. Unfortunately I am forced to make this trip without a camera.

So there might be a break in blogging for about two weeks. I will take the opportunity to think of some changes in the blog. I've realised that I am going overboard with certain things. Someone had told me that I am too sarcastic and that my humor borders on the juvenile. It means that I have to work on these two aspects and try to think of other ways to get my point across. I look forward to making the changes. If I am able to access the internet at Mashobra then I might do a post. Until then bear with the interruption.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Champion's Mindset

Champions are not born; champions are made. Only a champion knows what it needs to become a champion. Since not everyone knows the secrets only a few become champions. Some people are fortunate to discover their talents at an early age and work on them to become champions. Some are even more fortunate to have someone else like parents and teachers spot their talents and egg them on to become champions. To become a champion one not only should have a talent, one should also have the will power and the grit to hone it to perfection. This needs a lot of effort, time and patience. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to become a champion. For some even a lifetime isn’t enough.

Some of the saddest stories are those of people who look back at their lives and regret not having made use of their talents. They rue their inability to exploit their potential to its fullest or rue their lack of self-confidence. Not everyone is a self-starter; some need an external motivator to guide them, to nurture them and show them the path. But not everyone is lucky to come across such people who can help them achieve their full potential. Mine is a similar case. I thought I had some talent but was helpless about what to do with it. I knew I could write but did not know how to go ahead. Apart from this ignorance, I also lacked the self-confidence. It was quite a struggle for me, studying a course in which I was not interested. After college for a brief period I worked as a copywriter in an ad agency. Then even before I could realize it I landed in a government job and am stuck here. There isn’t a day when I did not wish I had someone to guide me. Though I am beyond that stage where I let regret wreck my life I feel sad when I meet someone young and talented floundering in life. I wish I could help them in some way but I am not well equipped to tell them what to do. But now I know what to do if I come across young people confused about their dreams- it is ‘The Champion’s Mindset’ workshop by Hari.

One of the most fortunate moments of my life has been meeting Hari more than fourteen years ago. It was writing that brought us together. Since then I have seen Hari grow into the sort of person one only dreams about. Even as I was struck in my job with the government I watched Hari shape his future. He left a lucrative job with IDBI to pursue writing. When I met him he had about four manuscripts ready with him. He worked on his strengths as a former Ranji cricketer and a writer to do something purposeful. A couple of years ago after the launch of his first book ‘The Men Within’ he started giving motivational talks at colleges and to corporate people. His cool, unruffled attitude in face of problems, logical mind and analytical skills helped him find recognition as a management consultant. He began conducting small workshops where he motivated people to find excellence in their lives. He felt it wasn’t enough. Combining his experiences in organizing and conducting such motivational workshops he has now come up with a unique workshop called ‘The Champion’s Mindset.’ I feel it is exactly what a lot of people, youngsters particularly, need if they want to make some sense of their lives.

One needn’t have any particular talent to be a champion. One may not be good at chess or cricket, tennis etc., to be a champion. One can be a champion at anything be it selling or networking or anything one is interested in. One needs to have the desire to be a champion and those with such a desire can become one. I firmly believe that anyone can be a champion if they wish to. Till now there was a dearth of people who could tell others what to do with their talents and skills to excel in their lives and become champions. Now that Hari’s ‘The Champion’s Mindset’ is all set to take off I only hope a lot of people make use of it and develop the champion’s mindset.

Friday, April 09, 2010

At a Writing Workshop

At a Writing Workshop

Those who want to write or want to be known as writers are usually dogged by a minimum of two questions- What to write? How to write? Most of them know the answer to the former question. They want to write novels, short stories or magazine articles. But is the latter question that stumps them because they cannot find ready made answers for it. So they begin searching for the answer. Their search leads them on a quest for either something or someone to tell them how to write. The easiest way, they’ll discover eventually, to find the answer is to read books on writing.

In my personal experience, reading books on writing is one of the best ways to learn how to write. But it all depends on finding the right books. One can spend years, like I did, wading through scores of books before finding the right books that will tell you exactly what you need to know. But once you find the right books you are on your way to learning to write or become a better writer. Each book has only a few things to teach so it will take a long time to learn all the basics of writing. But there is a short cut, if you can call it one. An experienced writer sometimes shortens the process of learning by imparting a few important lessons of writing. Some of them give an insight into the writing process that is invaluable. One good way of meeting writers is attending book readings and launches where the writer inevitably talks about how she or he came to write the book and so on. Another good way of learning from experienced writers is at writing workshops.

After reading several books on writing, doing a correspondence course in creative writing, attending scores of book readings and launches the only thing left for me to do was to attend a writing workshop. Until recently I had dreamt of doing a couple of week-long writing workshops at the Summer Writing School at Iowa University. But now I feel it is rather too late for me to do a writing workshop. Even if I want to, I cannot because it is prohibitively expensive. My only wish was that someone would organize a writing workshop somewhere in the country if not in Hyderabad.

Last week, surprisingly, I read about a creative writing workshop being held in Hyderabad. After a lot of hesitation I finally registered along with Uma. So last Sunday I happened to be a participant at the one-day writing workshop on creative writing organized by Livemore. One reason I decided to go was that the popular blogger and author of ‘Chai Chai,’ Biswanath Ghosh would be one of the two presenters at the workshop. The other presenter was Raksha Bharadia.

The venue of the workshop was at the Fortune Select Manohar at Begumpet. I reached there along with Uma on his Bullet after a chai somewhere on the way. There were about twenty participants in the hall seated at the round tables arranged. After registering we were given a rose, I wonder why. Soon the session began with the introduction of the participants. This was one of the disappointing things I wish could have been done in a better way. None of the participants got to tell their backgrounds, their writing dreams and goals, plans and achievements and also what they expected from the workshop. The two presenters were introduced and the actual workshop began with one of them taking the mike.

Raksha Bharadia was the first presenter at the workshop. I had not realized that the curly haired lady with attractive eyes and dressed smartly in a skirt and shirt was Raksha Bharadia. Her presentation was good with her effort showing in it. She was also eager to tell us everything she knew about writing. Her session included some exercises designed to loosen up our creativity. We had to write ten words that come to mind while thinking of a memory or a situation. One exercise about imagining being a three year old kid had a few of the participants in tears. It must have brought up some unpleasant memories for them. She also told the participants about sending their stories for two ‘Chicken Soup for the Indian …’ series in the making. There was more later.

Next was BG or Biswanath Ghosh, looking fit and dapper in dark clothes and trendy shoes. He spoke for a short while before we broke for lunch. I had taken along my Mont Blanc Meisterstuck hoping it would catch his attention because he too was a fountain pen freak. It did. He asked me if it was a roller ball or a fountain pen. Later he signed with the same pen on my copy of his book ‘Chai Chai’ that I had brought along. When I told him that I had just finished revising my first book he advised me to send it right away to the publishers. Getting BG’s signature on the book was one of the two reasons why I felt the workshop was worthwhile. The second reason came next, during BG’s post lunch session.

BG emphasized, in his power point presentation, five things a writer should not forget- Perseverance, Observation, Wrestle (with laziness), be Engaging, and Rewrite, which form the P-O-W-E-R of Writing. Earlier he had said that the first paragraph is usually a reliable indicator of the rest of the manuscript. As part of an exercise, BG asked the participants to imagine ourselves to be a character in a fiction work and write 300-500 words on our thoughts before coming to the workshop. I managed to scribble a couple of hundred of words. We all had to read out the exercise one by one and BG made a few crisp but insightful observations on our writing. Most of the participants had written powerful prose which impressed BG. After I read out my exercise he said the honesty showed in my writing. I felt very happy about it. Later I had more reason to feel doubly happy.

While the others were reading out their exercises I had to go out to take a call on my mobile. I happened to come across Raksha Bharadia while coming back. She gave me a huge smile and told me she liked what I wrote for my exercise. It was another thing that made me feel the workshop was worthwhile. Coming from Raksha Bharadia who has published a couple of her own books (‘Me- A Handbook for Life,’ ‘Roots and Wings’) and also co-authored a few books in the ‘Chicken Soup for the Indian…’ series, it was quite a compliment. It was quite a confidence booster, her comments on my writing.

After a short Q&A session the two writers left leaving behind about twenty people filled with the confidence that one day they would write a book. One of the disappointments with the workshop was that no one talked about writing books. Also I felt that it would have been better if all the participants had a brief one to one session with the two presenters. It would have worked wonders for the participants and also given the chance to the presenters to give further feedback about the participants’ writing. On the whole it was a satisfactory experience considering the positive feedback I got from the two writers regarding my writing.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Job

I don’t like my job in the government, never liked it to begin with. But what I like about it is the idea that I am doing a job that is, literally, a field job. A real job that takes me into the fields every time I move out of the office. It is a job that comes with dust, the hot sun, but no water, no food and lots of nothings. Sometime back I thought it would be great to tell about my job to those IT types in their airconditioned offices with canteens and those who whine that they are the only one who are slogging. But now after six months in the field, I feel like coming back to an office in the capital. I cannot take it anymore. There is too much hardship in the job. I am amazed how some of my colleagues are roughing it out and have been roughing it out for years. I too had done the same for some years but a stint in the office in the capital softened me. Besides, I am not very young to withstand the tough routine my job involves.

If the hardship is one reason then another reason is the general working atmosphere in the districts where I feel excluded. The field staff work hard and also work hard at relaxing. They gather and have parties that involve alcohol, gossip and other stuff I am not very interested in. I feel out of place amongst my colleagues who are ready to face any situation. I am not temperamentally suited for a job in the government. I knew that even before I joined the government. I had thought I would quit after a couple of years but now it is too late for me to quit after sixteen years. It would not be the most sensible thing to do, quitting at such a stage. I have no choice but to remain stuck and spend the rest of my years in this job. The only hope is the prospect of retiring voluntarily after twenty years of service, which we are allowed to. I have another three and half years to go before I can opt for it.

The most important reason influencing my decision to opt for an office posting in the capital is my family. This posting is keeping me away from my family for most of the week. I am getting to spend only Sundays and other holidays with my family. I miss my kid very much and sometimes I feel sad I am not around when he comes back from school. He is growing up and needs my help in studies because he is now entering high school. I don’t want to be away at such a crucial stage of his life. I hope some kind of a miracle takes place that puts me back in the capital.

Sometime next month, in May, we have a grueling two week program that involves visiting two or three villages to prepare the farmers for the coming agricultural season. It is just the first week of April now and the temperatures are in the forties forcing people to remain indoors or cover their heads when they go out. I shudder to imagine how hot it would be in May when we have to move from village to village. Besides the hot sun, we have to contend with lack of drinking water, lack of proper food and even if we do get some food, it will be at an ungodly hour when we will have to eat whatever the villagers provide us. Then there will be the prospect of facing villagers angry with the power cuts, the un-remunerative prices and everything else that makes them unhappy. If anyone thinks that the government employees enjoy in their jobs, they should see us at work in May-June in the villages.

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Sunday Haul- Two Books, One Mag, and a Cop

One of the many but rare joy of browsing through the second hand book bazaar at Abids is finding books by new authors. I chanced upon one such book last Sunday at Abids. The book was a collection of short stories and titled ‘A Place I’ve Never Been’ by David Leavitt. I faintly remember coming across the name ‘David Leavitt’ somewhere but am not able to recollect where. Anyway, the reason I picked the book up was that it was a Penguin imprint. Another reason was the blurb by the New York Times at the back which said that Leavitt was ‘one of his generation’s most gifted writers’ which made me take it without a second thought. It turned out to be quite a good book judging from the first story which I read later in the day.

The second book of the day was one which I had been coming across at second hand book sales quite often. Though it was a book on writing I had not bought it because of the steep price and also the archaic language in it. The book was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s ‘On the Art of Writing’ which I got for only twenty rupees at Abids last Sunday. The book was first published in 1915 and the style is of that age, which is a bit difficult to read fast. The book is actually made of a series of lectures that the author delivered and one of the lectures is ‘The Practice of Writing’ which I want to read first.

The other find of the day was a high-brow magazine on the lines of Vanity Fair and New Yorker. It was also the first time I came across this magazine at Abids. I found almost the latest issue (Feb 8 2010) of ‘Newstatesman’ for only ten rupees. It has an interesting section called The Critics which had an interview with a literary critic Frank Kermode in which I discovered that he had written a book of essays titled ‘Bury Place Papers’ which would be interesting to read if I ever came across it. There is also another interview with Clive James who wrote ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ which I frequently come across at Abids. Next time I find it I am going to buy the book.

Last week there was a top cop in mufti browsing through the books on the pavement at Abids. This week too there was another cop but this time it was someone unexpected. It was a top cop, a lady IPS officer who I did not expect to see at Abids because only the previous month I had seen her at Landmark at Somajiguda. One could tell she had picked up quite a handful of books because following her was a safari clad assistant holding the books in his arms. It feels nice to see those in top posts not minding it a bit to be seen buying books on the pavements.

One advantage of going with a friend to Abids is that I can get to talk about books. Umashankar was with me last Sunday and we sat in ‘Light of Asia’ and talked about Kafka, books and our pathetic writing lives over a couple of cups of Irani chai. On days when I buy books and also get to talk with a writer friend about writing I somehow feel understood.