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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The price of innocence: Jimmy the Terrorist

SCAPEGOAT Silenced forever.SCAPEGOAT Silenced forever.
What makes an ordinary youngster from an average Indian town turn to violence? Each of us is born with innate talents and capabilities which only require the right environment to blossom. This is the story of Jamaal Ansari, an ordinary lad from a nondescript small town in UP, who breathes his last as Jimmy the terrorist. The novel examines with deep sensitivity the complex socio-economic and political factors that turn a young man "neither cursed nor blessed with extraordinariness" to become sensationalised by the media as some monster. Jamaal, like his father before him and like billions of youngsters all over the country, was merely hungry to be acknowledged, to claim the right to live with social acceptance and dignity. With well-crafted prose, the author succeeds in making us empathise with Jamaal; to want to know and understand the forces leading to his untimely and violent end. Ironically, death brings the alienated Jamaal posthumous fame and acknowledgement by Moazzamabad as one of its own, albeit as a terrorist.

This book explores situations, issues and characters with depth and sensitivity. The author's mastery over language and economy with words results in just the right number of pages of lovely prose, touching the reader's heartstrings or hitting where it hurts, but never meandering with seeming pointlessness and excessive verbosity.

One only wishes that the people outside Jamaal/Jimmy's mohalla, the people who make this world the harsh and unjust place it is, were portrayed with more detail and dimensions. The outsiders are mostly out and out baddies, who make brief appearances and wreak havoc in the lives of Jimmy and others like him. Fleshing them out a bit more would further strengthen Jimmy's poignant story.

My complete review is in Sunday Herald

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Conversations with Usha K.R.

It's been pure pleasure to know author Usha K.R. Warm, welcoming, always ready to offer encouragement to floundering new writers, she is a gracious human being. And oh, she's a lovely hostess. We last met in her home in Bangalore. The scents of cinnamon and fresh baking, the aroma of steaming filter coffee, went well with writerly conversations. My complete interview with her is published in Reading Hour Jan 2011.

Here are some excerpts:

Critically acclaimed author Usha K. R. radiates inborn charm and grace. With soft-spoken serenity, she can make you feel an instant connection, while her twinkling eyes belie a keen intelligence. Her first novel, Sojourn, was followed by The Chosen.

Shortlisted for the for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (2008) and winner of the Vodaphone Crossword Prize (2007), Usha K.R.’s third novel, A GIRL AND A RIVER, is exquisitely crafted. The author has brought to life the freedom movement and its effects upon the people of the former Mysore Princely State. Mylariah's rise and ultimate degeneration, Sethu's callousness rather than any active malice, which causes terrible tragedies; it is all brought out beautifully. Dr. King, Ella, Shyam, Shanta Kole, Kalyani, all the major and minor characters are well rounded and multifaceted. The protagonist Kaveri's tragedy is summed up beautifully when we finally find her in a 'home' for lost causes. There is a Kaveri in almost every family in the region, blooming with life and hope, and then burdened over the years with neglect and disappointment. Her story repeats itself in many silent tragedies.

The novel ends in a note of hope embodied by the offspring of Kaveri’s brother Sethu and Kaveri’s daughter, who is her niece and also her granddaughter.

Usha K. R.’s latest novel, Monkey-Man (2010), takes a fresh and insightful look at life in Bangalore, India’s fastest growing city. As a new millennium dawns, a strange creature attacks passers-by in the streets of Bangalore. Is it a malevolent avatar, or a sign of the displeasure of the gods? Is it the grotesque mascot of a city that is growing too fast, or merely a lost monkey? Shrinivas Moorty, a teacher in a city college, call center professional Pushpa Rani, Neela, secretary to an influential man, and Sukhiya Ram, her office boy, are the first to sight the strange creature. They are invited by popular RJ Bali Brums to discuss their experience on his popular radio show.

The lives of these characters become intertwined in unexpected ways. They also personify the multiple hues of tradition juxtaposed against and vying with modernity and westernization; a theme running through the heart of Bangalore and many Indian cities.

Neela, for example, continues secure yet stagnant in her sinecure job, spreading concentric circles of pettiness and inefficiency of the old order. Pushpa Rani successfully overcomes a deprived upbringing to take on the world from her desk at a call center. Rising from a city where glass and aluminum skyscrapers overlook shanty settlements, and where ancient temples stand proudly in the middle of busy streets, the story of Monkey-Man entices the reader into a deeper understanding of human nature.

 What were your influences in the early years? And later on as you matured as a writer and published author?

UKR: I can’t think of any conscious influences, but I admired Jane Austen for her polished irony, her restraint, her ability to do so much with so little. Reading Austen, Dickens and Henry James brought ideas and possibilities of exploring the dilemmas of one’s world and engaging with it intensely but quietly. At the same time, there was Indian mythology, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata with their direct story telling, their colour and their noise. Shashi Deshpande’s early work brought home the fact that English was an Indian language and could be the language of fiction, my fiction.

 How do you develop your characters? Were Kaveri in A Girl and a River, and Pushpa Rani in Monkey Man, for example, based on people you knew?

UKR: Here, I must quote Amitav Ghosh who when asked if he based his characters on real people, said: If the answer was ‘yes’, I’d say ‘no’. There may be a single trait or an impression you have of a person which seems to sum up his or her essence, or even a person or event you read about, and then you spin it out, depending on the requirements of the story and the circumstances you place the character in.

Many authors say that there is a little of themselves in their stories and characters. Do you feel this is true of your own writing? Do you rely heavily on personal experiences, write from what you know, or do you rely more heavily on research and external knowledge.

UKR: Initially you begin with personal experience and then realize that direct experience can only take you thus far, and you would have a very limited board of characters. It is a mix of personal experience, research and reading, animated by one’s intuitive knowledge of people and circumstances.

Friday, February 11, 2011


An editor just mailed me saying she didn't "get' a story I'd sent her. Fair enough, but this leads to the question, what DO people 'get' when they read something you've written. An opinion piece of mine was published recently in Deccan Herald The widely appreciated essay was meant to be tongue-in cheek and sarcastic. It was certainly not 'preachy' but meant to make at least a few readers introspect before finding fault with the 'authorities' for causing everything that ails the world. Guess the irony/sarcasm/fun element must have gone over the heads of some readers, who not only could not 'get it', but are jumping to conclusions.

A Google search brought up the same article cited in full in a lawyers' forum. Being lawyers, the poster has cited my name and the original URL of the publisher before quoting it verbatim, so I guess this probably takes care of copyright issues. or does it?

The same posting has received the following comment on that site:

"A very nice illustration of what we are but we only clamour about and do nothing because Indians are the biggest hypochrites.In straight term these preachings are for others and others means others which means not for us and that is what we have been genetically made by our maker and we feel proud in it.The presenter of this article is Monideepa but she could not shed her another identity,i.e SAHU.She wanted to identify herself not as Monideepa but as belonging to a SAHU clan.Quoting text from other source is not for herself but for OTHERS as mentioned earlier. Come on folks dont just waste this column to PREACH others if you can not follow yourself.Thanx."

so this person is saying that I , as author of the original article, am "quoting text from other source is not for herself but for OTHERS"  Now it's my turn to not 'get' it.

In writers' groups, we discuss again again how we should not underestimate the readers' perceptiveness and bluntly and crudely point out the meaning of each and everything we write. But then one always wonders. Shoddily written and oversimplistic books seem to be doing excellently in the marketplace, while novels and stories involving more complex artistry gets fewer takers.

An open ended story can leave quite a few people flummoxed.

A writer friend recently lamented the apathy of the publishing franternity towards more complex and intelligent writing. Following the advice of his agents, he is painfully trying to "dumb down" his book according to perceived market demands.  "So," he tells me, "I have been (quite angrily) spending the last few days turning my literary social thriller into a marketable thriller (that's why I was not in a mood to reply to any mails, sorry for that). "

My question (I welcome insights from anyone happening to read this post ) : How much complexity in writing is actually accepted and understood by readers today?

Must we all succumb to market forces and make do with writing trite and oversimplified stuff?

How much must we conform, and if so, to what standards, to be understood and accepted?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

we are like this only

Hoo boy, don''t we all love to crib and carp about the way things are being run in this country? We have all the time in the world to wax eloquent about all that ails us. But god forbid, if there's ever an issue needing our attention, we sink from the occasion and vanish from the scene of crime. We're the guys who clean our homes and toss our garbage at the neighbour's doorstep. Indian males of all ages, shapes, sizes, IQ levels and economic strata, habitually take a leak in public places while complaining loudly about how filthy our cities are compared to the best they see in phoren lands. Sheesh! why blame politicians alone? We are like this only, and politicos too are 'simbly' people like us.

My essay on what makes us the way we are published in Sunday Herald