Friday, September 28, 2007

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

Events in Myanmar are spiraling out of control. So many thoughts in my head -immense anger at the military, so much respect and awe for those who are protesting. And also immense disgust and anger at my own government.

It was slightly bizarre in the midst of all of this to read the final paragraph of Sunil Khilnani’s excellently argued "The Idea of India":
India’s experience reveals the ordinariness of democracy – untidy, massively complex, unsatisfying but vital to a sense of human life today. It establishes that historical and cultural innocence do not exclude Asian cultures from the idea of democracy. But it does not mean that these cultures – or any other, for that matter – are tailor made for democracy. It will always be a vary struggle. For opponents of democracy in Asia, the history of this experience is a warning of what can be done. For its advocates it a basis of hope. The uproarious laughter that suffused the afternoon meetings held in Rangoon after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 1995 expressed something of that hope. It was a laugh of freedom – that dissolves fear and says, however quietly, there is no divine right to rule.

It just makes it even more disappointing to see India dilly dally on the issue and not condemning outright the junta in Myanmar. The cozying up to the military regime since 2000 speaks volumes of our increasing hypocrisy and lack of moral standing.

You can sign Avaaz’s Myanmar action petition here. In addition, more information from Irrawaddy here. The BBC’s coverage here. openDemocracy’s article on the happenings here.

* Post title from Camus' s The Myth of Sisyphus. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Book Tag

Book tag by way of Alok.

Total number of books owned: No idea. Have a whole roomful in Delhi not all of which are mine of course. Many of them belong to my parents…some have been handed down. Plus there are quite a few of the earliest books I ever owned still around, including Red Riding Hood and Snow White (which my mom used to read out to me!), collections of Amar Chitra Katha, Hans Christian Anderson, the abridged version of classics like Count of Monte Cristo, Oliver Twist etc. (The unabridged versions are there too). And there are also books bought during the teenage years that I am quite ashamed about now – Jeffrey Archer, Michael Chrichton, even a couple by Sidney Sheldon and the like. No Mills & Boon or the sort – never read those. Don’t have many in my room now, only a couple of shelves, mostly because I use the library rather than buy books these days.

Last book bought: Heh. Orhan Pamuk. Other Colours.

Last book read: Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories. I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is simply one of those books that everyone should read. Please do. It is a slender volume – only about 100 pages – and would probably take only a couple of hours to read. The short story, The Land of Sad Oranges is one of the most poignant, moving (these words seem so hollow but what else can I use to get my point across?) I have read in a very long time, leaving me feeling as if I was stuck in a vacuous, pointless, senseless space with just no way out.
More on Kanafani here.

Currently reading: Other Colours, of course. Apart from that Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. I lugged it (literally – it’s a ridiculously unwieldy book) back from Delhi because it was just lying at home and I was contemplating buying it anyway. Because of its size, reading it on the train is not feasible so I have been reading it at night before going to bed and it’s been slower progress than I would have liked. (I usually fall asleep while reading table lamp on et al and wake up with a start only when my alarm goes off the next morning…sigh. This work thing is not fun; I have eye bags that could rival a raccoon.) Anyway, have been reading Guha for the last two weeks (discount weekends) and am about 60% through, and so far it has been quite good, detailed and engrossing. That is saying quite a bit given the scope and scale of the book in which it definitely transcends usual one volume introductory texts on India.

Books plan on reading next: On my bookshelf Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun; Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India (which I have heard only good things about); Maria Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Script writer (I still haven’t read Llosa – utterly shameful, I know, but this shall be rectified soon). Suggestions on which to read first?

Five books that mean a lot to me: Jeez…I really had to think hard about this.

The Black Book – Orhan Pamuk
I struggled between My Name is Red and The Black Book…and really I should have copped out and chosen both. Perhaps Kara Kitap is still fresh in my mind because I read it recently and because when I think of the stories that populate its pages – of the Istanbul mannequin maker who had no buyers when mannequins became all the fashion because his were too “Turkish”, of the back streets of Cihangir, the dark kahve shops, of dear Aladin’s shop where you could find anything under the sun – they all remind me of the city where I spent probably the happiest two weeks I can remember.
But this also made me feel that perhaps a reread of Benim Adim Kirmizi is in order. For I truly fell in love with Pamuk (I always liked him a lot but My Name is Red blew like out of proportion) while reading that book. And because it contains probably my two favourite lines in a Pamuk book:
“To God belongs the East and the West. May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.”

L’Étranger – Albert Camus
While I love Camus’ essays – The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel in particular - L’Étranger is probably my favourite book by him. Cold, indifferent Meursault who cannot even cry at his mother’s funeral…who in the end seems to us to be the internally rational and logical person. For the world, in the end, is only as sensible as we make it.
Side note: Camus over Sartre – Yes?

Discovery of India – Jawaharlal Nehru
Nehru is so often portrayed as a romantic… a dream in his eyes, rose in his button hole and the sort. (It is an apt description I guess - when he made his “Tryst with Destiny” speech he was wearing a rose the button hole of his silk kurta, and no doubt he had a dream). Some of this comes across in his writings as well. He could ramble on with metaphor after metaphor but more often than not his prose was elegant and his writings hugely expansive ion scope. This is most obvious in Discovery of India, where he seems to be almost narrating a common national heritage into being.

Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects – Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell is one of the most egotistical people I have ever read. And also the most brilliant. He had an opinion on everything and he usually put down his point for view, which is why he must be one of the most prolific writers ever. In all his books his prose is simple, logical, to the point and extremely witty. And it’s probably at its best in Why I Am Not a Christian. I also love his Marriage and Morals and History of Western Philosophy (which while biased, is still a really good read) among others.

Ramayana – Valmiki
The version I read was a ridiculously fat tome with the original Sanskrit, supplemented by Hindi, supplemented by English. It’s a great story, beautifully written and I think it’s important to read a lot of texts in their original form just to realize the grotesque misrepresentation of them by the religious fundamental asshats. Plus reading the Valmiki Ramayana is a good base to read the other versions as well – the Ramacharitamanasa (just so beautifully lyrical), the Kamban Ramayana, C.Rajagopalachari’s English version (which is probably still the best English version of the epic, and miles ahead of his English version of the Mahabharata) or even watching the TV serial (I still do when I’m in India!).
I usually avoid the Uttara Kanda because it seems like nothing more than a tacked on epilogue. It is offensive of course, but so are other parts of the Ramayana… and Rama is different from the idealized version of him we are usually fed. But he is still a most fascinating character, hugely human and very charismatic. And simple. In this he is miles apart from Krishna, who in all honesty is way beyond my comprehension. I wonder if I would ever be able to read the entire Mahabharata in a remotely original form, that text is so long, meandering and plain confusing, just the thought of it overwhelms.

Ok…this took me longer to finish than I would’ve thought possible. Needless to say I have rambled on aimlessly. I tag Falstaff, Veena, TR and Elizabeth. (It’s a nice tag – so please do do it!)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Other Colours; Book Covers

I bought my copy of Other Colours day before yesterday and it has been the source of much joy since. I thought I would space it out and read it over time but that didn’t work out at all and I have been reading not only at home but on the train (even taking a longer route home so that I could read at a stretch), while walking from home to the station and from the station to work and vice versa. And no doubt people who watch me reading think I’m slightly deranged what with the silly smiles and giggles Pamuk brings out….(this happens with me a lot but the responses are so much more magnified when I read Pamuk.)

On a side note, when I was buying the book I couldn’t decide which version to pick up. The print by Faber and Faber (paperback) or the Alfred A. Knopf (a hardcover) version. Both were for the exact same price and I walked from Borders to Kinokuniya twice because I couldn’t decide which one to pick up. I eventually picked up the hardcover because it somehow seemed more apt for a collection of essays and because the pages were so wonderful – thick rich paper, slightly jagged at the side. This despite the fact that I love the cover of the Faber version (it’s a picture that first appeared in Istanbul. The young Orhan Pamuk still dreaming of being a painter). And also despite the fact that Knopf spells colour as “color” and I do actually prefer the British spelling. In any case, once I had bought the book there wasn’t much I could do but I did agonise over my decision.

This sort of anal pickiness over which book to buy is so typical of me. I have hardly been buying books for the last few years because they are just so expensive and also because the library is so good that my library card is my single most valuable possession. So when I do buy a book it is a sort of emotional investment. I chose the copy with the better cover, sometimes smell the pages, always try to get a hold of how it feels in my hand. Other Colours has been my first purchase since I started work and now that I am earning I keep eyeing books that I really want to own (top of the list is this version of the Shahnameh). Clearly this is where all my money will go.

But here is the thing. After all the fretting about which copy of Other Colours I should buy because of the cover I felt a bit validated when I read this essay in the book:

Nine Notes on Book Covers

  • If a novelist can finish a book without dreaming of its cover, he is wise, well-rounded, and a fully formed adult, but he’s also lost the innocence that made him a novelist in the first place.

  • We cannot recall the books we love most without recalling their covers.

  • We would all like to see more readers buying books for their covers and more critics despising books written with those readers in mind.

  • Detailed depictions of heroes on book covers insult not just the author’s imagination but also his readers’.

  • When designers decide that The Red and the Black deserves a red and black jacket, or when they decorate books entitled Blue House or Château with illustrations of blue houses or châteaux, they do not leave us thinking if they’ve been faithful to the text but wondering if they’ve even read it.

  • If, years after reading a book, we catch a glimpse of its cover, we are returned at once to that long-ago day when we curled up in a corner with that book to enter the world hidden inside.

  • Successful book covers serve as conduits, spiriting us away from the ordinary world in which we live, ushering us into the world of books.

  • A bookshop owes its allure not to books but to the variety of their covers.

  • Book titles are like people’s names: They help us distinguish a book from the million others it resembles. But the book covers are like peoples faces: Either they remind us of a happiness we once knew or they promise a blissful world we have yet to explore. That is why we gaze at book covers as passionately as we do at faces.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ad love

Have you seen the new Louis Vuitton ads? More specifically the one with Graf and Agassi?
It's just all sorts of adorable and Awww inducing.
It almost made me forget about the ridiculous line of Japanese tourists outside Louis Vuitton stores everywhere in the world and made me want to own one.

Contrary to what the NYT says Gorbachev certainly didn't make me want to buy one....

Friday, September 14, 2007

Of Ramazan greetings and other things

Need to write about many things.

Of Pamuk’s new book – not much to write here actually except that in short the wait is killing me! But till then, links on him declaring himself “…a democrat, a secularist, a liberal and a westernization supporter”, talking about politics in general and a lovely excerpt from the book on barber shops in Istanbul.
(All the reviews of Other Colors I have read have been, not surprisingly, extremely positive).

Of Majid Majidi’s Beed- e- Majnoon (The Willow Tree), which I saw recently, weeping silently throughout. Also about Majidi’s other heartwarmingly adorable Bacheha- ye- Aseman (The Children of Heaven) which I saw quite a few years back.

Of Abraham Eraly’s Mughal Throne which I finished a while back all the while thinking of putting up excerpts here (perhaps as a photo commentary sort of post?). It was a great read.

But till I get time to write about these wanted to post wishing everyone on Ramazan which started yesterday. Ramazan bayramınızı kutlar! Most wonderful meal of baba ghanoush, hummus and harissa was had last night. All washed down with generous doses of mint tea. I reached home stuffed, happy and dead tired. Anyway, hope the coming month brings good tidings…..

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Istanbul: on my mind…

…and in books I read. The city turns up strangely enough in W.G Sebald’s hauntingly sad The Emigrants. The name ‘Eyüp’ leapt out at me as I was flipping through the book to reach the page I was at and immediately I thought ‘Istanbul!’ And after that of course Istanbul was in my thoughts all day.

Calm voyage. Resting for hours under the awning on deck. Never seen water as blue. Truly ultramarine… In the early afternoon, far ahead the capital of the Orient appeared, like a mirage at first, then the green of trees and the colourful jostling of houses gradually becoming more distinct.

It is said that ideally one should approach the city by sea to truly appreciate it. Nowadays I think you have to be rich enough to afford a cruise for that, I am not. I took a fifteen hour train from Greece and that in itself was pretty special. An hour after I had been told that we were officially in Istanbul we still hadn't reached. I knew the landmarks to look out for though and as the train crossed the city walls at Yedikule, I knew we were truly in Istanbul. As the train pulled into Sirkeci and I caught my first glimpse of the haliç, the Galata Kulesi on one side and the minarets of the Süleymaniye Camii on the other, I couldn’t help but scream out in delight. Istanbul!

Evening falls. We watch the dark descending from the outlying hills upon the low roofs, rising from the depths of the city atop the lead-grey cupolas of the mosques till at length it reaches to the tips of the minarets which gleam especially brightly one last time before the light goes.

No one could conceive of such a city. So many different types of buildings, so many different greens… Every walk full of surprises, and indeed of alarm. The prospects change like scenes in a play. One street lined with palatial buildings ends at a ravine. You go to a theatre and a door in the foyer opens into a copse; another time you turn down a gloomy back street that narrows and narrows till you think you are trapped whereupon you take one last desperate turn round a corner and find yourself suddenly gazing from a vantage point across the vastest of panoramas.

There is no skyline that is more beautiful than Istanbul. None. I love the minarets. Not just those that dominate the skyline but even the more obscure ones. I love how the poke out of the jungle of newly built structures, just beating the modern buildings in height. I love how when you reach a clearing after having climbed up one of the narrow, steep lanes that so characterize the city and spot the six minarets of the Sultanahmet Camii or those of the Süleymaniye Camii, you suddenly know exactly where you are. I never felt lost in Istanbul. Those minarets gave me a sense of direction.

In the middle of the hall a husbandman was saying his afternoon prayers. Again and again he touched his forehead to the floor and remained bowed down for what seemed to me an eternity. The soles of his feet gleamed in the straggling light that entered through the doorway. At length he stood up, first casting a deferential glance to right and left, over his shoulders – to greet his guardian angels, who stand behind him…

There are some seven thousand plus mosques in Istanbul. They are everywhere. And each of them has a distinct call to prayer. I am convinced if I stayed in Istanbul long enough I would be able to pinpoint each muezzin's call. My favorite was at the Sultanahmet Camii. It was simply one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard – I had goose bumps all over. There was also a mosque somewhere near where I was staying as was a night club. I couldn’t see either but it was the muezzin’s call that would wake me up in the morning and when the call to prayer would ring out at night it would be in accompaniment to the latest Turkish pop number that was blaring out. I would invariably smile.

Ay Istanbul.

Text in Italics from W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants.