Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Prince and reality TV

When we turned on our TV last Sunday morning, breathless newscasters greeted us with yet another thrilling scoop on every channel. Days after thrilling minute-by-minute coverage of the Mumbai blasts and then the tsunami in Indonesia, the weekend news pulsated with never-seen-before images. Blurred pictures of a tiny, skinny, crumpled figure, and then a pair of eyes glinted in the eerie blue light of the closed circuit TV relaying images from the almost bottomless pit. Tiny Prince, who saw his sixth birthday trapped inside a deep and narrow well shaft, looked barely human in those distorted images. A sad metaphor for his terrible predicament.The media then drew our attention to prayer meetings all over the country. Crowds gathered everywhere, sometimes with the trappings of a carnival.

As we watched Prince emerge from the pit in the arms of brave army men, I couldn’t help but wonder. Were we, the TV viewing public, like spectators at a circus watching the action from the ringside? It seemed as though competition caused the numerous TV channels to seek out and create yet more spectacular news. After all, the audience could take only so much non-stop excitement over yesterday’s bomb blasts and tsunamis, and ratings would plummet unless fresh headlines dazzled. Were the news channels showing adequate sensitivity when they intruded into the personal trauma and ultimate victory of a brave little child? Were we voyeurs who, sated with the plethora of entertainment shows, craved the thrills of prying into the personal tragedies of others offered by ‘reality TV’?

My son says such media exposure has positive results. Financial and other help is pouring in for Prince. In fact, rescue efforts might have been abandoned after initial setbacks, if the whole world and their cousins were not watching and praying. Media attention will hopefully prevent the recurrence of official negligence, which led to this awful incident.

So Prince had his moments of tragedy and glory. May he enjoy many long and fruitful years of life. Let us praise the Divine, the Army and the media, and then grab bowls of popcorn and surf channels. Don’t want to miss the next breaking news of a plane crash or serial bombings.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Malls as literary outlets

Malls are cropping up all over Bangalore. Huge crowds gawking at window displays, teenagers hanging out, hardly places to reflect in calm solitude. But it can be done. Well, not exactly in tranquil surroundings and certainly not in a totally reflective mood.

Some years ago, several of us women writers from Bangalore got to know each other through our published articles. Friendship blossomed and we decided to call ourselves 'Inklinks'. We come from different religious and linguistic communities. There are teachers, professional counselors, a doctor and a painter among us.

Cubbon Park was a great place to club an outing with literary criticism, until the ants took a fancy to Dr. Eva Bell's yummy cakes. They bit poor Eva, perhaps hoping she would bring bigger helpings for them next time. There we are in Cubbon Park. From left to right, Nalini, Dr. Eva Bell, Vathsala, Malathi, and Prema. I took the pic so you see my bag in the foreground. Other members, Lakshmi, Anuradha, Khurshid, and Kamini Williams aren't in the picture, but are very much part of the group.

We disappointed the fire ants of Cubbon Park by supporting Dr. Eva and seeking a safer place. We were pretty skeptical when Nalini and Malathi proposed a centrally located mall. But the rooftop food court proved to be a calm place during slack hours.

We met yesterday, shopped, caught up on gossip, ate waffles and sandwiches, downed strong filter coffee and... Yes, we discussed writing and stuff also.
We have many short stories ready and are serious about bringing out a joint collection. We've received much encouragement from the Times of India folks, who aired a short clip of one of our meetings on their national news channel and published an article about us in their pages.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Verbal aggression and 'strong' language

People have always used expletives and foul language in certain situations. I see a a rising trend among people in Western societies to use such words anywhere and everywhere. The editor of a literary journal is compling an international dictionary of verbal abuse. When he sent his list of words and phrases to me, I was first amused, then uncomfortable.

Overuse of strong expletives tends to annoy and upset me. It may be 'cool' or 'fun' upto a point. But foul language tends to lose its impact if used indiscriminately and frequently. They become just a lot of words used, IMHO, by people who lack imagination and frankly dont care about expressing themselves more appropriately and effectively. They don't make much sense and seem to me like so much jargon or gibberish.

If certain individuals choose to pepper their speech with dirty words, we as writers do not need to emulate them blindly. We can and should use our discretiton and explore more creative avenues for expressing ourselves. A writer can use gutter language when it fits a fictional character or situation. We need not avoid real issues and be coy. But I don't see much point in using vulgar words and phrases everywhere, certainly not as a statement of literary style. That purpose would be better served by the immense power of the understatement, by imaginative and innovative use of metaphors etc. That is the way we can show our creativity, not just by repeating a stream of hackneyed, overused bad words.

I also see that I could write a (hopefully) sensible post without using a single 'cuss' and I also see that I had to think harder instead of blindly using words that, by overuse, have become trite and banal.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Well of Snakes

I've spent my entire life in the congestion of urban clusters. So I'm drawn to fresh air rustling through trees, the calls of birds, and wide open spaces. There's such a sprawling forest area just seven kilometers from our apartment in Bangalore. On holidays, we sometimes drive down and take a morning stroll through the wooded area, which is home to the Bangalore University campus. This area is called 'Nagarbhavi' in Kannada. It means, 'the well of snakes'.

Often, things I encounter in ordinary daily life form the kernels of stories. This forest campus too, has led to a story (link in right sidebar). The hundreds of acres of forest land is gradually giving way to buildings for more university departments and institutes. But there's still long stretches of trees and scrub, through which the roads wind to and from the city.

They've cut away some of the indigenous vegetation and replaced them with groves of eucalyptus now. But the babools, date palms, mango trees and the butterflies still thrive. Among the sweet chirps, coos, and twitters, I can recognize the cuckoo and sparrow.

By the roadside in the middle of the forest, a man sells juices of herbs and fruits to morning walkers. I ask for a mix of everything he has; margosa, mint, cucumber, bitter gourd, black grape, tomato, radish, other green liquids he chooses not to describe, but which smell refreshing anyway. He seasons my glass with a drop of garlic juice, and I quaff the slightly bitter, leafy smelling drink. All for a princely six rupees.

This gentle Eden has hidden dangers. I halt abruptly before a huge black scorpion flattened by some speeding vehicle on the tarmac. It still looks vicious, its black body at least eight or nine inches long. There are snakes too, some harmless but others not.

I stop by an anthill on the top of a slope for a view of the city. The rising columns and spires of the anthill teems with busy creatures who build yet higher. I stare at the expanse of buildings below me, boxlike independent houses, clusters of apartment buildings like ours, and farther off on the horizon, the towering high rises of the city's business district. So many cars and buses carrying busy people everywhere.

But the day's work awaits. I don't have time to wonder.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Commuting in Mumbai

During my days as a commuter in Mumbai's rush hour traffic, I remember how people in trains and buses made the best of a tedious routine. Long train journeys served several purposes. Some allowed the rocking train to lull them into a hard-earned catnap. The trains threw many people together, regular commuters who shared the same compartment on the same route daily for years. They played cards, exchanged pleasantries and some even became bosom buddies. Many trains had their regular card playing teams, with onlookers placing bets and cheering their favorite side on.

Mumbai's commuters knew all about multi tasking long before management gurus extolled its virtues. Women in the second class ladies' compartments caught up on domestic chores on the way home. They usually reached their suburban homes very late, and every minute mattered. The enterprising ladies knitted, sewed, and even peeled and chopped vegetables for dinner. Vendors entered the compartments and sold everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to hairbands and cosmetics.

Two incidents linger in my memory. One morning, my train halted a furlong from the Churchgate Terminus platform. It was quite a height to jump off, so I waited, hoping the train would start again and take us to the platform. But as office time neared, the more intrepid among us girded their sarees and tied their dupattas, took off their shoes, and took the plunge.

As the minutes ticked by, I remained one of the timid few in the stationary compartment. I peered down yet again at the height I must jump, and faced the exciting options of risking a broken ankle and arriving late at work.

"Don't be scared." A voice startled me by its sweetness. "Hold my hand, close your eyes and just jump."I stared at the owner of the outstretched hand, a slim young woman with an exuberant afro hairdo. Her rich dark skin had a hue not commonly seen among Indian women. In the moments I took to overcome my awe of her beauty, she turned proudly on her heels and disappeared among the crowd.

I guessed she was an African, probably a student at the nearby Bombay University. I wanted to reach out to her, to tell her that if people were taken aback by her exotic looks, it did not necessarily imply racism.

On another drizzly monsoon evening, I emerged from Andheri Station and frantically hailed reluctant autorickshaw drivers to take me home to our apartment. My savior finally arrived, a natty young driver dressed like the reigning Bollywood superstar.

As I entered the auto drenched and shivering, he cut me short by announcing, "donÂ't tell me where you want to go. You don't remember me?"

No, I did NOT!

"You're famous," he continued. "You look for autos around this time every evening. We all know you. We know everything about you. I know exactly where to take you, so just sit quiet and don't bother giving directions."

Who was he? A stalker or a hit man from the underworld perhaps? I shivered in the speeding auto while he regaled me with ceaseless chatter. Should I jump off at the next traffic signal and bolt? Or should I wait and watch? He hadn't taken out a gun or dagger yet, so maybe...

True to his word, he brought me right till the entrance to our housing society without my needing to give a single direction.

"So which one is your building, ma'am?"

"You can drop me right here, thanks. I'll need to pick up a few groceries here, so..."

He stopped, I got down, paid him and watched him sputter away down the street.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Commercialization and popular media

Have you ever wondered at the declining standards of popular magazines and newspaper supplements? You know the kind of writing I’m talking about; the stuff you flick through while waiting at the dentist’s or for a haircut?
I keep meeting folks who dismiss this kind of reading as ‘utter crap’. So why are these publications seen and read just about everywhere?

The criteria for judging writing as trash is purely a matter of perspective. Those who love the popular magazine type of fare with their morning cuppa may dismiss my writing as so much paper fit to be rolled up by the toilet side. One man's meat being another man's poison, blah blah, yadda yadda.

That apart, the secret to the success of such publications is advertising sponsorship. Don’t miss the never ending cornucopia of 'articles' in such papers, which eternally harp on the benefits of certain lifestyle products like wine, botox treatments, etc. Take any popular commercial publication. They cater in varying measures to commercial lobbies, whether for promoting beauty or lifestyle products, or other consumerist fare.

Botox and sugar substitutes are perfect examples of what I’m talking about. Doctor friends tell me that these substances can be downright harmful. The label on a popular sugar substitute prominently displayed on local supermarket shelves reads; endorsed by WHO studies. What the label doesn’t say is, which year that study was undertaken, and whether there were subsequent studies not only disproving those claims, but also showing some dangers in continued use of the product.

So do you get my point? The manufacturers of such products have their lobbies and push, directly and indirectly, to have their products 'endorsed' by 'experts' in articles. Articles targeted at suckers with fat wallets who flick through a popular glossy magazine while being chauffeur-driven to work.

Similarly, the photos of the evening's happening events (read pubs, bars, restaurants) would probably have a deeper significance. Offer the media persons their beer and freebies, some other benefits to the publication, and you have some lovely, convincing indirect advertising.

A win-win situation for all concerned. Even for you, because you get so much extra paper to line your kitchen shelves and sell to the raddi walla.

IMHO, the magic of popular publications is to dumb themselves down to appeal to the masses, who constitute their huge readership and also keep the advertising-consumerism chain rolling.

The 'low level' articles with surrogate advertising appeals not only to the mass readership, but also very much to the advertising lobbies and the newspaper itself. It is they (the advertisers) who pay for the newspaper we get.

The actual cost price of the daily newspaper would be around Rs 10-15 but we pay only 2-3 rupees. The advertisers bear the burden, and that is why the managements of papers support them.

As for 'high level' writing, I wrote this 4k word long literary story about a guy who collects newspapers (ten years' back copies) as a means of coping with personal tragedy. That story is doing the rounds, getting very encouraging feedback from editors, but it is still unpublished.

If I write another article extolling the virtues of botox treatments (which doctor friends tell me might cause more harm than good, besides being frightfully expensive) the article will be lapped up and I will be paid for it.

That is the system. Money talks.

An American writer friend tells me things are not much better with the consumerism driven mass media in her own country.

The fact is, give people the world over their pubs, malls, fast cars and movie gossip, and they are too happily engrossed to care for much else. Those concerns are best left to the miniscule minority of 'losers' who probably live in ivory towers or idealistic erewhons.

IMHO it always has been, and probably always will be like this. Most people will accept anything that is fed to them with a spoonful of sugar or money. It is difficult to think, harder still to think in a sustained and sustainable manner and dig deeper into things. It also doesn't pay ;-) so even some of the few who can, do not care to.

I am not being judgmental. Money drives the world. Many of us here scream ourselves hoarse because writers are not being paid enough. Many of us seek money, and consider only getting paid well a mark of success.

Similarly, money drives what is being published, what is being dished out to the consumer. Oops, sorry, reader. We consume/read whatever someone chooses to subside for a commercial purpose.

The popular publications and other forms of mass media do not care for, are not looking out for, serious investigative work or serious literary work.

Nobody paid Vincent Van Gogh for his art, though he is today, long after his death, considered one of the all time greats. But the ad whizzes get paid piles for all those brilliant, cool, sexy ads which sell more shampoos, luxury cars, soaps.

Nobody pays those who try to create art with words. But you DO get paid for churning out reams of not all that well written or intelligent stuff which sells, to consumer /readers, a certain lifestyle. Popular mass media basically needs an endless stream of ‘copy’ to accompany those glossy ads on the adjoining page about snazzy cars, beauty products, botox, etc,

The media needs and encourages articles which will appeal to the reader without taxing him intellectually. The article must not outshine those masterpieces of artistic creation; THE ADS.
What is mass produced is a total package of articles/stories and ads targeted at the reader who will drool over the glossy pages and rush to buy more, more, more.

Entertainment, dumped down to cater to the needs of various consumerist lobbies, SELLS.
I say this having written nearly a hundred articles for various commercial publications. It was fun while it lasted, but I don't do it any more and choose to remain 'invisible.

Guess why.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

In God's Own Image

This piece was published in Deccan Herald in the Wake of New York, 9/11. It's relevant to Mumbai 7/11

In this terror-ridden world, while some are searching for peace and justice and others for more efficient techniques of large-scale mayhem, we have performed a miraculous journalistic scoop. Our colleague, who prematurely left us thanks to one of the countless bombs blasting the planet, has managed this exclusive interview with the Almighty Himself.
Over to the Supreme Creator:
The Lord is frantically polishing His huge signboard in a last ditch effort to restore pristine lustre to His tarnished name. A frown of annoyance disturbs the eternal tranquility of His noble visage, as Ishwar, Allah, Jehovah, God Almighty, or whatever believers of different faiths choose to call Him, answers our departed colleague's queries.

DH departed reporter: Lord, they say your divine hand is behind everything in this world. Then why this evil and destruction?

God: I created men with free individual wills. So why shirk your responsibilities and pass the buck for your misdeeds on to me? Why ME?

DH: Lord, the people causing the terror say they are doing it in your name. They even expect you to reward them in heaven.

God: For the last and final time, I have always commanded people to love their neighbours. Where have I ever advocated killing innocents? Tell me, which religion advocates hate and destruction?

DH: But Lord, you are the Almighty. The world is looking to you for answers.

God: These horrible perverts have gone berserk. It's true. I did create man in my own image once…(chokes, holding back tears. Then clearing His throat, speaks again)
I gave them the noble gift of intelligence and reason. I let them have free will, wanting them to be a line of defense against the forces of evil.
Today they have turned the tables against me. They are misusing their divine gifts and reinventing me and my teachings in their corrupt image. Such is the power of misconceived faith. You murderous scoundrels, stop this nightmare at once! I command you...Love each other, be good and just and kind.
Listen to me. Why make me the scapegoat? …Please…listen. Spread love, not destruction.
(God faints and is carried away by heavenly attenders)

Why Mumbai?

I'll start with the 'why' of things. Why am I blogging? And What Do I want to say?

Everyone blogs, and maybe that's why I didn't do it until now. Maybe I'm just too shy. Maybe because I felt that people will ultimately notice good work.

But today, I'll start by adding my voice to the cries of many who are moved by the bombings in Mumbai. I lived and worked in Mumbai for several years. It's a city I love, a place where no one is made to feel like a stranger.

Except for increased security at important places, my own city, Bangalore, seems to be quite normal till now. But these blasts have really rattled the people of Mumbai and all Indians. We are now hearing from friends and acquaintances. My own relatives in Mumbai are all safe. But distressing news is trickling in from other quarters. Our former neighbor's, who moved to Mumbai some years ago, have both (married couple) died in the bomb explosions.

There is some finer distinction between natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis and man-made ones. Natural disasters are inevitable; fate or the hand of God for those who believe in religion. But when innocents die at the hands of evil humans (?) these barbaric acts of terrorism take on a new and more sinister dimension.

At such times, I prefer to focus upon the innate goodness of ordinary people.

I still remember how my fellow commuters in Mumbai showed touching sparks of warmth and humanity despite the impersonality of mega city rush hour crowds.

At that time, I was in charge of my bank's vault and all keys to the office and everything in it, which was quite a lot of valuables. As usual, I carried the keys in my purse and rushed after work to Churchgate station. I normally went in the separate ladies' compartment, but that evening, the ladies compartment was jam-packed, while some of the general comparmtments had plenty of free seats. So I took a window seat in a general compartment and enjoyed the view. The train passes the seacoast and many parts of the city. The skyline is impressive.

But when the train was nearing my station, I realized that I just couldn't penetrate the wall of men and get off. There were too many people, no space to even place my foot on the floor, let alone move ahead towards the exit. Mumbai's trains carry millions of commuters daily, so one can only imagine the density of the rush hour crowd.

I had several fears. Someone could easily steal my bank keys, a terrible thing. I could lose my job for it and also face a police case considering the amount of money etc involved. Dereliction of duty and everything.

If I missed my station, I could also be hauled up for ticketless traveling since my ticket wasn't valid for the next station.

And I was afraid of being jostled by so many men, at least a hundred of them breathing down my neck. I was just 26 then, young and nervous. But they were so good. When I began requesting them to make way, some of them asked whether I was new to Mumbai? Didn't I know that general compartments would be like this during peak hours?

The men pushed me ahead gently and helped me get off at the right station .All of them made way for me with so much politeness. And an added, 'Always take the ladies' compartment, ma'am'. Not one of them touched me improperly, and I was really grateful for their help. These people were from different religious and linguistic backgrounds. But that didn't matter, as it still doesn't matter to most of us Indians. But I guess horrible incidents like this do tend to raise tempers and reduce patience levels among those directly hit.

This is just what the terrorists want, and we mustn't let them have their way.

During this disaster, the same people who helped me in the train, are coming forward to help the injured and stranded. I salute their spirit.