Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pico Iyer on the Dalai Lama

Pico Iyer has known the Dalai Lama for over 30 years. Iyer was recently on CBC's Tapestry with Mary Hynes [Listen to the show here] in connection with the launch of his new book The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

In this program segment, Hynes attempts to tease out the pop-culture phenomenon the Dalai Lama appears to have become (in the west) from the complex intellectual, spiritual and political person that (I believe) he truly is. For me, the Hynes-Iyer conversation was more than just an intellectual experience. I actually came away with little snippets of information that ought to be put to use into my own everyday existence. Here, for instance, are some of those interesting tidbits:

--That the Dalai Lama considers it silly to hope for a magic wand that would help him resolve the situation in the middle-east.

--That the Dalai Lama practices a type of meditation during which he eats his breakfast, exercises on his bike, listens to the BBC World News. In short, he is constantly in motion while he meditates. This way, he gets to meditate for up to 8 hours a day.

--That the spiritual Dalai Lama is not averse to making a critical assessment of the political Dalai Lama and vice versa.

Listen for more such almost-obvious practical approaches to carrying on with our human existences. [Link]

Manish at Ultrabrown has a somewhat related post here after attending one of Pico Iyer's reading.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Meaning of (Academic) Life

Today is one of those rare days when I will admit to restlessness about life within the walls of academia. (This admission is coming from somebody who refused to apply for a position in industry or any other non-academic employment sector for that matter.) A generous dose of humor is desperately needed to get over this atypical personal crisis.

So perhaps it is time to transfer more books from the library to the ever-growing pile next to my bed: Roger Rosenblatt, author of the academic satire, Beet, went as far back as the 1950s and came up with a list of five best satires of academic life. However, all five books are populated by characters affiliated with the English departments.

I can understand the humanities taking on more than their fair share of book-producing responsibilities but I am puzzled by their over-representation inside the pages of books dealing with angst-ridden existence. Note to aspiring writers: Folks in health sciences too are desperate for comical assessments of their lives. They are literate and are willing to pay good money to laugh at themselves. Any takers?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Hazards of BWM (Blogging While Mom)

I was just recovering from one of the hazards of blogging during lunch at work: I had typed 'Booker of Bookers' when I actually meant 'The Best of Bookers'. My husband had discovered the error and chided me. He is a stickler for facts. He is a writer after all. I was mad at myself. I am a stickler for facts too. I earn my living as a researcher. Plus, I hate to discover I embarrassed myself. I can be obsessive like that.

So here I am, on a Saturday morning, wanting to please myself by perfecting my next post. I treat my children to whole-wheat chocolate pancakes (healthy food laced with dessert to ensure maximum consumption by fussy toddlers) and hope they will be lulled into playing by themselves for a short while. Breakfast things uncleared, I open the laptop at the kitchen table. So let me see: what are the top 10 reasons I remain fascinated with Pi Patel's life. Hmmm ... is it because Yann Martel had the audacity to start his book with a short thesis on the biology, ecology and physiology of the sloth? Or is it ... ?

By now, all the usual noises in our home -- the plonking of piano keys by chubby toddler fingers, the thuds of graceless falls by a 4-year-old acrobat practicing on the couch, the outraged squeals of a 5-year old discovering that evil sibling has (once again) raided the forbidden treasure box -- have all been forcibly pushed to the background. Yann Martel, Pi Patel. Piscine Molitor P. Richard Parker. Gather. Focus. Type ...

But wait. What is that noise? A chair being dragged across the kitchen floor. Okay, just this one reason before I look up: Religion vs. Zoology. What an excellent juxtaposition.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

That doesn't sound good at all.

I ... have ... to ... go. Wait, no one else has argued for the concept of zoos this eloquently, not even the most pessimistic ...

Hey, what's that whirring sound? The microwave is on? Am I defrosting something?

No, no, no. NO, you two-year-old monkey! Get down from there! What are you cooking in the microwave?

I dart across the kitchen floor. Press the Stop button. Can't help noticing that there are 7 mins and 8 secs left to complete what I think is my toddler's microwave recipe of cooked air. Turn to leave. On second thoughts: I open the door of the microwave oven. And there, awaiting its next avatar as melted plastic-and-metal goo, is our molded plastic-and-metal can opener.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Dark Side of Indian English

A person belonging to a scheduled caste told Anjali Puri of Outlook India: "English is a Goddess we worship." [From CBC's Dispatches. Listen here.] And why not? In a country where tools of education and livelihood are venerated and accorded their own special day, it does make sense to add the Language of Economy and Power to the pantheon of locally-relevant concept of Gods. No one will endorse this belief more vehemently than my now-deceased, agnostic, maternal grandfather who moved from the village to the city, leaving the life of a small-time peasant to eke out an equally unsatisfying living as a petty rice-shop owner.

My thatha went to prison marching against the imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu. Keeping in line with his philosophy and practical needs, he diligently taught himself to read the news in English. He died when he was 47 and I was only four. The most vivid image of him that comes to my mind is one in which he progresses slowly from one page of his English newspaper to the next through the course of the day; between customers who haggle with him; and among his many duties as head of a lower-middle class, multi-family household. He rejoiced when his daughter chose (and his son-in-law afforded) one of the better schools in the city for his granddaughter, but wasn't around to see her prize for highest marks in English at the end of 4th grade.

My thatha would have disagreed with Chachaji's advice to Anjali Puri. The thought behind the advice would have puzzled and troubled him. As proud as thatha was of his culture and country, he would have welcomed any genuine attention -- local or international -- to the English-language divide that weighed so heavily on his life and the lives of his children, nephews and nieces (and continues to adversely affect some of their offspring, even today). He would have been forced to sadly conclude that some people prefer to sweep major systematic (subcontinental) socioeconomic problems under lush imported carpets in distant North America, for reasons most suited to themselves. And he would have felt betrayed.

Reference: India's English Speaking Curse. CBC's Dispatches. April 20, 2008. (Host: Rick MacInnes-Rae)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

'Life of Pi,' my choice for Best of the Booker

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize, a Best of the Booker will be awarded this year to one of the 41 Booker winning books (there were ties in 1974 and 1992). A panel of judges will select a short list of six novels, then the public will vote on the official website, which means, of course, that the best book won't necessarily win.

I have not read all 41 books to make a truly informed choice, yet I am vain enough to have a personal choice at this point: Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi'.

No one else has blended the field of animal behavior with literature as well as he has. No other book gave me reason to pause and wonder if it was equally suitable for my other blog.

For now, I will just have to wait and see if 'Life of Pi' makes it to the short list.

Here is an essay that gives us a peek into how he wrote this exceptional book.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One little-known South Indian book

A comment on Sepia Mutiny:

"...I'd like to feel refreshed and uplifted upon finishing a South Indian authored book, not weighed down and vaguely guilty about something I can't quite put my finger on."

One book, little-known in contemporary reading-circles, seems to be Kamala Markandaya's 'Nectar in a Sieve.' I believe that if you choose to read just one South-Indian authored book (in the English language) in your lifetime, it should be none other than Markandaya's almost-poetic, sensitive portrayal of a landless peasant woman's life in an India that was rapidly changing. R.K. Narayanan fans may disagree with me on this but comparing the subject matter, social relevance, characterization, writing style and its ability to move and connect you with the characters, the place, and their hardships, I would still recommend Markandaya first. If you, like me, have some connections to impoverished rural India (even if that link has weakened with each successive generation), then you owe it to your people to learn about their perseverance in the face of hardships if only to cherish their dreams and hopes that have been passed on to you.

Make no mistake: Markandaya dishes up plenty of suffering in this book. But strangely enough her book left me feeling utterly grateful for everything I have been given in life--food in abundance; a roof over my head; a language associated with economic power in India; education; opportunities; some level of control over my life; my ability to keep moving periodically and reinventing myself--without my asking for some of this or even deserving any of this. I figured that one way for us to give back is to learn to have compassion for those that have been left behind (or stayed behind--whichever way you like to look at it) and, at the very least, to find it in our hearts to remember such stories and pass them on. Not for sentimental, sanctimonious reasons but for very practical reasons. A respectful appreciation, if nothing else, for the people who accept and endure devastating, multiple hardships and humiliations, can only lead us to see that our glasses are full enough. An understanding of the tenacity of the people who experience the loss of everything they own, know about, or connect with, except their ability to hope, can teach us to move our own personal mountains in ways that prayers cannot.

I discovered Markandaya's 'Nectar in a Sieve' on my own, by chance--in a library sale in West Lafayette, Indiana. At the time of my reading (over 10 years ago), my mind (with respect to both author and the specific book) was a blank slate. No reviewer had influenced me, no marketing gimmick wooed me, no school teacher had demanded a synopsis out of me, no academic had taught me how to interpret the characters or where to place the book in the grand scheme of literature. Yet the book resonated positively with me like few others did. It was a rare, pristine experience that I may never experience, ever again. Since then I have come to know that the book has been studied, approved, criticized and embraced by many. Here is an anthropologist's view on the characters Rukmani and Ira.

Don't let the cover illustration of the current edition fool you. The book is set in South-India. Rukmani and her husband work in their paddy-fields, growing rice. There are several Tamil words throughout the book, although I don't specifically recall the characters describing themselves as Tamil. Two sons leave to find work as indentured labourers in the tea plantations of upcountry Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)--which also added to the impression that Markandaya was writing about rural Tamils.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'Namesake'--the movie

Only last week did Melvin and I, busy parents that we are, watch 'Namesake' the movie. (Wait, I am not completely honest here. We are not that busy. The truth is really embarrassing: we just can't get seem to reclaim the TV/DVD player from our kids and we've been reduced to watching cartoons aimed at 3- to 5-year old kids. But before you judge us, let me just say that this has done wonders to my reading habit.)

So nearly a year after the movie, directed by Mira Nair and based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, was released, we rented a DVD and watched with abated breaths. When I read the book a few years ago, I had thought that it was reasonably good--not great--and definitely not the kind that Iwould revisit. But being Mira Nair fans, we wondered what kind of magic Nair would bring to the product. But by the end of the movie, I was left wondering, "What was the fuss all about?"

In my opinion, one of the weaknesses of the book--the lack of a central plot--is more glaring in the movie. The entire experience amounted to nothing more than a movie-version of a long, rambling tea-time conversation that started with the life of the parents before drifting off into the as-yet-uninteresting life of their son. In the absence of plot, Ashoke Ganguli's revelation about his emotional connection with the son's name, has been given the status of a pseudo-plot. If I recall the book correctly, there was none of that filmy drama between father and son that got built into the movie.

In the book Lahiri lets the reader know, in a sequential manner, in her characteristic, detailed prose, Ashoke's emotional tie to Gogol the writer; the selection of 'Gogol' as a pet, not real, name for his son; the accident of the missing mail; the resignation with which Ashima and Ashoke accept the 'renaming' of their son by his kindergarten teachers. The name issue was an important feature to understanding the Ganguli family's (not just Gogol's) life and experiences in America, but there was no mystery surrounding it. So I didn't particularly appreciate all the vapid secrecy that was built around it in the movie. I also got the feeling that it was set up to make one cry with Gogol, while he learns of his father's past near-death experience, but, watching Kal Penn's reaction, I only felt deflated.

Ironically, for a character that is so obsessed, tortured and defined by the arbitrariness of names, Gogol Ganguli exhibited absolutely no awareness when he advised his future (Caucasian) brother-in-law to address all the sari-clad, middle-aged Bengali women by the generic label "aunty." "That will keep them happy," says he non-chalantly. As someone who is on the cusp of being called aunty (even though I don't feel like an aunty) by hordes of unreflecting kids, I want to officially register in writing my protest at this one-sided and selective understanding of the complexities of personal identity and nomenclature.

An aside: Amardeep exhibits an academic's insight into the name's issue here.

There was plenty of good acting by Tabu and Irfan Khan but the same cannot be said of Kal Penn, the most recognized (in North America) name and face among all those actors. But considering the alternative--apparently the first actor for Gogol's part on Nair's wishlist was Abhishek Bachchan!--I am all for Kal Penn, and only for Kal Penn (Can you see a pouting, tortured AB, Jr. in an American highschool classroom scene?). What was Mira Nair thinking? Is she selling her soul? Is she ready to give up all that she stood for? Doesn't she know that she is several cuts above that meat industry?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sujatha, R.I.P.

S. Rangarajan, a prolific and popular writer in Tamil who adopted the pen name Sujatha, died in Chennai on February 27, 2008. He was 72.

I am not as well-read in Tamil as I ought to be but if any one writer deserves to get credit for opening my eyes early to the pleasures of reading in Tamil, it will be none other than Sujatha. I was a pre-teen when I discovered his serial novels in the pages of Tamil weeklies, Kumudam and Ananda Viketan , in the early 80s. The sketched illustrations that accompanied his stories and novels were strikingly different from those that accompanied other stories and features printed in the same weeklies. His Tamil women characters were often depicted wearing jeans (or skirts) and T-shirts and I paid attention to this tiny detail. Instead of slice-of-life stories about madisaaru-clad conventional middle-class Brahmin women and their maids with their nool podavai hitched up for easy mobility (people that I mistakenly assumed I was quite familiar with and, therefore, had no intention of reading about), the illustrator hinted at a world of stories intriguing enough for me to put down my Louis L'Amours. The illustrator was right.

Two decades have rolled by since those early years in Chennai, and I cannot recall the exact titles of the novels I eagerly waited for and read in weekly instalments. But I remember how often Sujatha surprised me with story-lines and genres that I, in my English language-informed ignorance, didn't expect to find in Tamil. There were mystery novels, detective series, perhaps too, some science fiction. There were charming, young, Tamil male characters more real and relevant to the local context than any that populated the books revolving around Jeeves; yet the young Tamil women characters often led lives and harboured interests quite independent of the conniving male charmers. Perhaps they ended up together occassionally but whether that happened or not did not seem to matter to the main plot of the story, I think. And always, always there was plenty of witty, sharp dialogue--the type of crisp humor you often see in Tamil stage comedies--that easily incorporated some English words written in Tamil script (just as any self-respecting Chennai-ite would do without thinking twice).

I loved Sujatha's style and stories (and his unconventional women and men) so much that I eventually explored other writers in Tamil--whether they glorified the Tamil woman's garpu and honour and frustrated me or whether they explored class/caste consciousness and moved me--during much of my teen years. I have not read a single novel or even a periodical in Tamil for several years now (in fact since I left India to study abroad at 19 years of age) but if it weren't for Sujatha's works I would not have entered the rich world of contemporary Tamil literature even for those few, brief formative years.

A tribute to Sujatha by Prema Srinivasan appears in The Hindu. [Link]