Friday, May 28, 2010

The Sunday Haul and Recent Readings

Though not all Sundays are the same, however I am beginning to get the feeling that the second hand book bazaar at Abids is appearing to be boringly predictable. The booksellers are the same, the books they sell are the same, and even the people coming there appear the same. Though I don’t expect the book sellers to change I expect them to add newer books to their wares. This Sunday it was no exception except for the mildly pleasant weather. I couldn’t find anything interesting to buy and was almost on the verge of going back home when I came across an old copy of a travel book. It was Kevin Rushby’s ‘Eating the Flowers of Paradise’ which is described as ‘A Journey Through the Drug Fields of Ethiopia and Yemen.’ It is about the ‘quat’ addiction in these countries. Though I have heard of ‘quat’ leaves I haven’t heard of Rushby before and since the book looked promising I bought it. That was the only book I bought last Sunday at Abids.

However I have been reading quite a few books. One of the books I enjoyed reading was Sidin Vadukut’s ‘Dork’ which I found to be extremely funny. I liked the humor in it which I felt was original. The protagonist’s adventures are goofy and hilarious to say the least. I am waiting for more books by Vadukut.

Another book I finished recently was Ryscard Kapuscinski’s ‘Another Day of Life’ which is an account of the Polish author’s account of the time he spent in Angola reporting the civil war raging there for his paper. Kapuscinski describes the heat, the mindless killings and the people in a style I haven’t come across anywhere. Though I had bought the book quite a long time back I took it out to read only a few weeks ago. I wish I had read it immediately after buying it.

Another book I wished I had read right after buying it was Louis L’Amour’s ‘Education of a Wandering Man’ which is an autobiography of sorts. I had bought this book more than three or four years ago at a temporary second hand book store opposite the Deccan Chronicle office in Secunderabad. I haven’t read any of Amour’s books but now I want to. I had seen two copies of his book ‘How the West Was Won’ at Abids but did not buy them since I had not yet finished reading ‘Education…Wandering Man.’ I finished reading the book today and I found it to be fascinating reading.

Louis L’Amour is a self-made man who traveled a lot when young and also educated himself by reading whatever books he could lay his hands on, often reading as many as a hundred books each year. He has an extensive library at his home. He describes many of the books that he has read and at the end of the book is a list of books he had read during the years 1930-37, listed year wise. He seemed to possess an endless thirst to know more about civilizations and how people lived in the past. He is fascinated by Eastern philosophy, especially Indian and mentions many ancient Indian books and writers.

Apart from descriptions of his days as a miner, seafarer and boxer Amour also writes a lot about his writing in the book. He writes that many people think of him as a novelist but that he actually began with short stories, poetry and a few articles and essays. He wrote his first novel only after writing and selling more than a hundred short stories.

Some of his observations on writing I’m reproducing here:

‘A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.’

‘Writing, however, is a learning process. One never knows enough, and one is never good enough.’
(What a comforting thought!)

‘The writing of a really fine short story is like the carving of a gem.’

‘Someone said that culture is what remains with you after you have forgotten all you have read, and I believe there is much truth in that.’

The biggest bonus I got from ‘Education of a Wandering Man’ is the numerous titles of some good travel books that he has read.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Temporary Detention

Those of us in certain government departments who have to deal with people on a face to face basis almost daily know a lot of things that the ordinary public doesn’t know. One of the most common misconceptions is that villagers are naïve, innocent, and gullible. Of course, it is true that most of the villagers are so in addition to being trusting and helpful. It has also been my experience that some of the most wonderful human beings are the people in the villages who lead simple lives, don’t have much of an ambition in life and take whatever life has to offer them. I have a soft corner for them and am always on their side no matter what they do. But it is also true that some villagers are very, very stubborn and quite unreasonable when it comes to certain things. One recent experience brought me face to face with this facet of a few villagers. The incident even got me (and my picture) into the local papers.

Since last Monday I have been traveling to villages as part of a program that the government has designed to help farmers prepare themselves for the coming agricultural season. The program involves conducting meetings with farmers in villages where officials of agriculture and allied departments give the farmers advice. Last year I had done this program in another part of the district but now I am supervising eleven officials. I am visiting the area of a different officer every day. Sometime last week I went to a village where only a handful of farmers gathered in the beginning. After the meeting started two villagers asked where the revenue staff was. They said they wanted to ask about the list of farmers who were getting compensation for loss of their crops due to drought the previous year.

The two were adamant that the revenue official also known as Village Revenue Officer be summoned to the meeting. They said that they would not let the meeting progress further. Soon a crowd gathered demanding the same. They said that the list was wrong and that ineligible farmers got compensation whereas farmers who had actually lost their crops did not get any money. I tried to convince them to write out a representation to the higher officials but they scoffed at my idea. They were very skeptical and said that we were trying to pass the buck. In every such meeting there are usually a couple of people who are reasonable and try to be on our side. But that day almost the entire village was hostile to us. As the crowd gathered the hostility increased. They said they would not let us leave the village until the VRO was produced. They said that they wouldn’t even give us water or food. I had left early in the morning without even breakfast and three hours later the hunger was gnawing. There seemed no way out as the villagers especially the two persons were very stubbornly refusing to see reason.

Only the other night I was talking to a friend over the phone and he revealed that someone he knew worked as a higher official in the area. I called him up, got his friends’ number and talked with the higher official. He sent the Tahsildar to the village. The villagers said they would detain him too until the VRO was produced before them. The elderly Tahsildar tried to convince them and finally the villagers relented after he assured them that he would take against the truant VRO. It was almost half past two when we left the village feeling damn hungry. From about half past eight in the morning to half past two in the afternoon we were captive in the village. It was not a new experience to me but what made me annoyed was that the two stubborn people prevented the other villagers from learning what we had to tell them.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Glad About Books

Perhaps the only day of the month I am glad I love books and reading is on the first Sunday of the month. And that’s because ‘The Hindu’ comes out with an extra supplement- The Literary Review- on that day. It is a supplement that no other paper in the country has. This month I had more reason to be happy because the TLR was back to its old format of six pages. The regular columns on books, reviews of the latest books, interviews of writers, articles on classics, a column by a bibliophile and other book related stuff is a heady mix for those who love books and reading. Reading ‘The Literary Review’ assures me that I am not really mad to pick up books by the dozen every month.

The occasional article on writing in ‘The Literary Review’ also makes me glad that I am a writer (or trying to be one) who dreams of being featured in it one day. I dream that some day my own book would be reviewed in its hallowed pages. It seems a long way off but no one can accuse me of not trying enough to improve my writing. The only two ways (that I know) of improving one’s writing is a) to write regularly and b) to buy and read books on writing which is what I usually do because it easier than writing regularly. Not surprisingly last week I picked up yet another book on writing.

Sometime last month I had been to the recently reopened second hand bookstore- The Frankfurt at Begumpet. In the store I came across not one but two hardcover copies of John Truby’s ‘The Anatomy of Story.’ The guy asked four hundred and fifty rupees for the book which I felt then was too high a price. I did not buy it right away like I usually do when I come across books on writing. I asked that the book be kept aside for me until a week. I forgot all about it for nearly two weeks and when I went back a fortnight later the guy told me that he had sold away both the copies after waiting a week for me. I was almost heartbroken and regretted not buying the book the moment I had seen it. I had not expected both the copies to be sold off so soon which also means that I am not the only Hyderabadi trying to learn to write.

Anyway last week I happened to drop in at the same store. I was lost in checking out the hundreds of titles laid out on tables when I saw someone loom before me. It was one of the sales guys holding out a book towards me. I was thrilled to discover it was ‘Anatomy of Story’ and this time I grabbed it right away. I got the book for four hundred bucks which I now think is not too high an investment considering how much a Booker Prize winner gets.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Shimla Trip- Good Bye Mashobra

Not many government hostels in the country can boast of the sort of list of do’s and don’ts that I saw at the hostel at Mashobra on the first night of my week long stay there. The list was stuck on the back of the door and being a compulsive reader I checked it out and was immediately stopped dead in my tracks at one of the ‘don’ts’ on the list. It said that the inmates should not venture out after sunset to avoid encounters with leopards. Now, a leopard was the last thing I expected to meet anywhere so I immediately decided not to move out anywhere out of the hostel without two people on either side of me. In the morning on the first day one of the trainers, a local, rather casually told the entire class that he usually comes across the leopard when he goes out on his evening walks. It seems it doesn’t do anything and simply walks away. Somehow I had my own doubts about the leopard’s behavior with people from other states. Anyway, I had no time to take walks in the evenings because evenings were reserved for trips to Shimla.

Almost before we knew it the week was coming to a close. I was more happy than sad that the training was at last coming to an end. I was missing my family very much and wanted to rush home at the earliest. However I also felt a tinge of sadness because I had made a good friend in Prannoy and there was a lot I wanted to talk with him. Only on the last two days of the week did we get time to take early morning walks around the woods surrounding the hostel. On such a walk we met a ninety year old person, Negi who still collects wood from the surroundings. We visited an almost abandoned forest building located on the edge of a slope that had a stunning view. I wish I had taken my early morning walks right from the first day at the hostel because there was a lot to see around the place.

On the eve of the last day we had a sort of cultural meet in the recreation room of the hostel. Everyone was supposed to entertain the others with some thing. A lot of people sang songs beginning with Prannoy. One of my room mates did a jig and the other sang a mournful song and also told a joke but forgot the punch line! There were many who read out romantic couplets and it was astonishing to discover that people working in the government could be so talented. When my turn came I lived up to my ‘scholarly’ reputation (built on my looks alone) and talked about books and writing. I wish we had the meet during the beginning of the week so that we could have known others well. The next day was the last day and there was no time except to exchange telephone numbers and email id’s.

I stayed in Hotel Doegar in Shimla on Saturday night after Prannoy left by an overnight bus to Delhi. My bus was in the morning. I came across the café of the Coffee Board, an ancient place that served some nice food. I had my dinner and returned to my room and went to sleep. Early the next morning (which was a Sunday) I took a short walk around the ridge and found youngsters playing cricket near the Church. In the morning the place appeared different without tourists thronging the place. I looked around the charming town wondering when I will return again.

At Delhi I checked out Connaught Place on Monday. There was construction activity everywhere so I just walked around. I managed to buy a notebook. The next day I went to Nehru Place and found a couple of people selling second hand books. I found Elmore Leonard’s ‘Get Shorty’ and got the nice copy for thirty rupees. I plan to give it to my new friend from Sikkim. Later in the evening I got into the AP Express and was glad I was traveling by air-conditioned coach because outside it was like a furnace. On Wednesday evening I was back at home, safe and sound.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Recent Haul

Those who read are well aware of the effect reading books have on them. There are books that have an immediate effect and there are some that bring a gradual and imperceptible change. Then there are books that do not have any effect and these books are to be found almost everywhere. It is rare to come across a book that will change one’s life quite dramatically. I am not saying that it isn’t usual to meet someone whose life has changed after reading some book. It isn’t life that changes but something in their life that changes. Unfortunately I haven’t come across anyone whose life was changed after reading a book. There are books that influence one very deeply and for a lifetime. I haven’t found a single book that had changed my life but there have been books that had a profound effect on some areas of my life. So when I again came across ‘Time Out- 1000 Books to Change Your Life’ I bought hoping to know more about such books and the people whose lives were changed after reading a particular book.

Sometime last year during one my visits to Crossword at Banjara Hills in the City Centre Mall I happened to see ‘1000 Books’ on the shelves. Though I wanted to buy it I was put off by the price. I just flipped through it and put it back secretly hoping no one would buy it. I forgot that book and also what I had read in it until I came across it again sometime last week. I happened to drop in at the ‘Best Book Center’ store at Lakdi Ka Pul when I was in Hyderabad on office work. I grabbed the book the moment I saw it because it was priced at only Rs 195 and was mine for only Rs 180. The book is divided into seven parts or chapters according to the stages of human life- from birth to death. Each chapter is about the books that deal with that particular stage. It is quite an interesting arrangement interspersed with short bits by writers like Hari Kunzru, Jonathan Franzen (Kafkas’s ‘The Trial) and others talking about books that changed their lives. Most of them were writers I haven’t heard about. In Matt Thorne’s short piece on the book that changed his life (Carson McCuller’s ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye) I read that Stephen King is a big fan of McCullers. Stephen King happens to be on author one of whose books influenced my writing.

My writing really got a kick start after I read Stephen King’s On Writing’ about five years ago. Till I read the book I was confused about the direction my writing was taking, if aimlessness can be called a direction. I was looking for something that would make sense about the writing life when I serendipitously found ‘On Writing’ on a fine Sunday morning at Abids. Though I had got it for only twenty rupees I consider it a priceless find. It was the book that inspired me to begin my first novel and also complete writing it. ‘On Writing’ is one book that changed my writing life because it told me that if you have the writing talent then you should do something about it. More about ‘1000 Books to Change Your Life’ in another post I plan to do after I finish reading it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Shimla Trip- Sneaking Off to Shimla

On five of the six days that we were under voluntary captivity at Mashobra we managed to sneak out to Shimla for a couple of hours in the evenings after the training sessions ended. The training sessions went on every day right from half past eight in the morning to half past five in the evenings leaving us with just a few hours for ourselves. And those few hours we chose to spend in Shimla which was about seventeen kilometers away. With my two room-mates we worked out a deal with Deep the cabbie- for five hundred bucks he would ferry us to and from Shimla. Another person and our share would come down so we looked for a companion to take along.

On the first visit to Shimla we couldn’t see or do much because it rained. We just checked out Lakkad Bazaar and the famous Mall Road. We were soon huffing and puffing from walking up and down the sloping roads. The one good thing about Shimla was that no vehicles were allowed on some roads especially the Mall Road. Shimla is charming and quaint in a way. It has an old world feel about it that I found attractive. The place was neat and orderly in the way very few tourist places are. No one hurried about like in Hyderabad where the people rush as if the world is coming to an end.

There were a lot of things about Shimla that struck me as odd. There were no diesel cars around and all cabs seemed to be Maruti 800 cars. Another thing that struck me was that there were no fans anywhere in Shimla. Our rooms in the hostel too did not have them. Obviously, there is no need for fans or air-conditioners in such a climate. When I am in a new city I immediately compare it with Hyderabad. Needless to say there were too many differences between these two cities but one thing that stood out was that I did not see a single beggar in Shimla. Nor did I find anyone doing all those things that we Hyderabadis specialize in.

On the Mall Road we gawked for a while and just before we were headed back I found the board of a bookshop – Maria Bros. It was a shop selling antique, rare books, maps and such stuff. I wondered how I missed it. We returned to the Indira Gandhi Medical College where our cab was waiting for us. Maria Bros would me my first stop the next day.

The next day (Tuesday) it had rained early in the morning and later in the afternoon there was a hailstorm which brought down the temperatures to a level that my teeth started chattering. Sometime later it became sunny but the temperature remained the same and so we hurried to the room to change before rushing to Shimla. This time we had a companion in the cab who would be a permanent fixture for the rest of the week. It was the nattily dressed officer from Sikkim- Pronnoy Dewan, a well read and lively person. The first thing I did on reaching Mall Road was buy a jacket that I did not take off until I got into the bus to Delhi on Sunday morning. After buying the jacket we had momos, the first time I had momos. They tasted quite nice but Pronoy informed us that the momos that the Tibetans make are the best ones. There were Tibetans on Lakkad Bazaar selling clothes, bags, footwear in a row of tiny shops on the road. The Tibetans were polite and grateful that we had bought stuff from them.

On the next day the trip to Shimla was a sightseeing trip sponsored by the institute. We saw the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, a well maintained colonial building where the Shimla Treaty was signed. The conducted trip was way too short and before I knew it we were out of the building. Then the moment I was waiting arrived when we reached Mall Road. I headed straight to Maria Bros and discovered a lot of fascinating stuff- old books, magazines, maps and other stuff dating back to the 1850s. In fact I saw stacks of bound copies of ‘Punch’ magazine of 1850 and whereabouts. There was nothing I found interesting though I felt the store itself was interesting. It looked like an ancient store itself. The owner Rajiv Sud sat silently in a corner and graciously agreed when I asked him if I could take pictures of the store.

That wasn’t the only bookstore in Shimla on Mall Road. There were two other stores selling second hand books but I found nothing to buy at either of the stores. It was quite a disappointment. Somehow it did not strike me to ask the Maria Bros guy if he had any fountain pens with him. After the shopping we strolled on the busy Mall Road and Ridge (?) checking out the brightly lit church, bought peanuts from a vendor and watched the crowds. We bought shawls from Ram Lall and Sons. On one of those days we had Chinese food at a hotel on Mall Road whose name is I guess China Town. But I remember that the Chop Suey was out of the world. Later we had tea in a small local shop which had an ancient wall clock. We returned to the hostel quite reluctantly but those were evenings I would never forget.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

TheShimla Trip- Leg 3- In Mashobra

Getting down at Shimla I felt like I had reached a place located inside a refrigerator arriving from Delhi that felt like the inside of an oven. In a span of nine hours which is the time it took the Volvo bus to travel from Delhi to Shimla I had swung from one extreme of weather to another. I waited for an hour for two more people who were arriving from Delhi in another bus. A cab was waiting for us to take to Mashobra which, I discovered, was at least sixteen kilometers away from Shimla. In the night traveling in the cab it felt like we were going deep inside some jungle. Mashobra turned out to be a small village that we passed through. The driver, Deep, informed us that our hostel was three more kilometers away. The road was bad and also tortuous. There was nothing around us except tall trees as the cab wound its way to the hostel. It was a good thing I had kept in touch with the local contact who had arranged the cab or I would never have found the hostel even in the day time. It was located at a place with a lovely name- Craigneno.

Only the other night at Delhi I had slept almost without any clothes on and here at Mashobra I was cursing myself for not bringing any woolens as I snuggled deeper into the warm blankets. My two roommates too felt the same as we tried to sleep after dinner. In all there were about thirty of us in the hostel which had two whole floors below the ground level opening on to another slope.

One thing I always try to do when I go to a new place is to check it out the sunrise. But at Mashobra it was so cold I could not get myself out of the bed so early. Later I saw all the trainees in the dining hall where everyone gathered for breakfast. Outside, it was beautiful with a fantastic view of rolling mountains and valleys carpeted by tall and majestic pine trees. In the distance I saw tiny villages clinging to the slopes of the hills. We could see Shimla from our hostel and if any of us had wings it would not have taken more than a minute to reach the place. Birdcalls echoed constantly as we made our way on the sloping path to the meeting hall of the training institute. It was a sunny start to the training I felt as I clicked at everything in sight, even the flowers that dotted the sides of the path. It wasn’t surprising that everyone had brought along cameras. The training institute itself was a picturesque cottage like building with a sloping roof.

The thirty trainees, including six of us from my state, were from almost all over the country including the Andamans. I was surprised to see Prasad who I had met four years ago at Port Blair. There were officers from W.Bengal, Bihar, UP, Jharkand, Gujarat, Assam, J&K, and of course, from Himachal Pradesh. I was surprised to see the hated gentleman I had seen on the bus was a fellow trainee from Sikkim. The introductions over, the training began. It was a hectic schedule that we had in store for the next five days. On the first day, in the evening, I made the plan to go to Shimla to which my two room mates agreed. We got the same cab we had taken to reach Mashobra and for the next five days Deep’s cab ferried us to Shimla every evening. The next post will be all that I saw/did or did not see/do at Shimla.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Small Town Big Hearts

A long time ago I made the pleasant discovery that being a Hyderabadi, after all, has some uses. I happened to make this unexpected discovery, not when I was in Hyderabad but when I was quite far away from it. I found that being a city dweller brings its own benefits especially when one works in small towns. I learnt first hand that the towns maybe small but the hearts are big. More than a decade and half ago I was staying in a very small town, smaller than Suryapet in fact. It was there that I first experienced the generous nature of villagers and small town people. It may sound ordinary to anyone else but I chose to call it the bighearted nature.

In Suryapet not a day passes for me without getting a glimpse of the big heartedness of the people of this small town that’s my home for most of the week. Just because I am from Hyderabad I get subjected to some special treatment one has to see to believe. I see it first thing in the morning when the guy in my regular hotel greets me with a smile, a cup of tea and the day’s paper untouched by anyone. I get my tea in a clean, porcelain cup and not in a tiny plastic container that others get. It makes me feel special. I see it when the elderly woman who is my landlord herself brings me water in a bucket when the taps run dry. I see it when she tells her maidservant to sweep my room when my maidservant fails to turn up.

I see it when the young and active person who I guess is Anand of Anand Café greets me with a broad smile when I walk in for a cup of ginger tea in the evening. I see it in the way the cup is filled to the brim with hot tea without a drop spilt in the saucer. I see it in the way they put the cup before me, gently and lovingly which is not something one gets to see often at the Irani joints in Hyderabad. I see this bigheartedness in the way the guy at the internet café clears a cabin for me when I step in to browse the internet. I feel happy at the way I am made to feel special even though I haven’t told many people that I am from Hyderabad. Maybe there’s something about certain guys from Hyderabad that puts them apart from the rest of the crowd.