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

Monday, January 28, 2013

preserving our heritage

India’s rich legacy of art, architecture, ideas and ideals has been built up over many thousands of years. But today, how many of us pause to appreciate our common cultural inheritance? Our cultural tradition is widely praised in distant foreign lands. It offers humanity a beacon of hope from its dangerous course of rampant greed and aggressive rivalry. Meanwhile, Indians like us focus our energies upon the rat race.

We are so immersed in the daily grind of making money and competing with neighbours that we don’t even find time to visit our parents and relatives. Foregoing a weekend at malls and resorts to visit places of historic interest? Browsing through museums to view glorious relics of our cultural heritage? Not for us, thank you!

When we do get around to visiting our ancient monuments, we scratch our names on timeless relics and leave behind trails of plastic and litter. How can our children learn to appreciate our culture and heritage if we ourselves are callous? Does our general apathy and lack of appreciation for our heritage stem from some ingrained deficiencies within us? Or, are we overwhelmed by the vastness of it all?

Perhaps lack of awareness and perception makes us like the proverbial blind men examining an elephant. We are conscious of our heritage only in bits and pieces, and are unable to fully grasp its significance.

India’s cultural legacy is threatened from many quarters. Overpopulation, natural forces, unbalanced town planning and growth, and wanton human greed are major factors in the gradual degradation of historic monuments and spaces of natural diversity and beauty. The writing on the crumbling walls is clear wherever we look.
India’s cultural heritage is not restricted to ruined monuments or musty showcases in museums.

It is up to us to see that it continues to be an integral part of our daily lives. Our philosophical traditions can continue to guide us and nurture our spirits in these times of violence and greed. Small shrines and structures connected with local heroes can be a rallying point for community feeling and pride. In historic cities such Jaisalmer or Delhi’s walled city, people continue to live and work within and around heritage buildings. In 2003, the ASI commissioned an Integrated Management Plan for the entire Vijayanagara site.
Small but sincere efforts from individuals like us can add up to far-reaching benefits for our heritage. As individual parents or teachers, we can help by introducing young people to our heritage through interesting books, films, and trips to heritage sites. We can take part in heritage walks, and even organise them in our own communities. As professionals, we can facilitate our employers to maintain heritage sites as part of corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Technology has made information-sharing more efficient than ever. We can use it to connect with like-minded people not only in India, but across the globe, and learn more about foreign cultures. Scholars and museum curators are no longer the sole authorities on matters relating to our heritage. We too can participate in spreading knowledge about our heritage, and share our personal insights and perspectives.

Read my detailed piece in Sunday Herald

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Skinning Tree, book review

Buy The Skinning Tree: Book

Picador India    Rs.499/-

Offering an insight into a tortured boy’s psyche, Srikumar Sen’s debut work highlights the Empire’s flaws. “Murder was the plaything of us kids. We fooled with the idea of killing like some kids fool with fire.” These crisp, loaded sentences draw readers into a unique and superbly crafted novel about imagination, regimentation, conscience, life, death and the haunting ghosts of memory. Eight-year-old Sabby lives a privileged life in Calcutta during the World War II.

To protect their child from the threat of Japanese invasion, Sabby’s parents pack him off to a remote school run by English missionaries. Sabby’s home was an island of “Victorian and Venetian opulence” in a bright and sunny, utterly Indian street with “smells and shouts in the air and saris drying”. Genteel guests gathered to play cards at “little table islands around little island minds”.

...When Sabby arrives alone and friendless to the bleak world of St Piatus, he can no longer push aside unpleasant thoughts as he could in Calcutta. In St Piatus, the boys are brutalised emotionally and physically by their misguided teachers. Sabby and his friend have to face the pain of “being controlled by claps and instructions”. The children become inured to pain, and react by not wanting to “inflict pain back, just make you disappear like the vanishing morning mist over the Ghor hills”.

The rough boys of St Piatus come from good families, and are “naturally callous and unquestioning” when it comes to killing. In this book, the author presents a broader perspective, probing how boys who can share treats, stand up for their friends and love tree snakes as pets, are roughened by the treatment they receive into mercilessly killing birds and animals around them. They gradually progress with chilling logic to murderous feelings towards their harsh teachers.
 St Piatus aims to mould children through this same fear and contention, to become ferocious standard bearers of the Empire.

In the end, “Fate was a gloating hoodlum.” The enforcers of authority are themselves victims of the system. Despite their own rough conditioning, they also retain vestiges of compassion and humanity. After punishing Sabby with customary mindless harshness, a Brother learns that Sabby was upset about his grandmother’s death. He then prays and offers Sabby a colourful prayer card for solace.
The prose flows smoothly overall, but occasionally the narration is jarring and confusing; “Because of his anglicised outlook, the result of his parents’ failure to nurture his Bengali heritage owing to their surrendering to the social demands of a British commercial world, he was always uncomfortable with Indian situations and customs which he didn’t understand or was unfamiliar with; what he didn’t want to see didn’t exist.” These bumps are compensated by evocative, nuanced passages, conveying vivid sensory images and multiple layers of meaning.

The novelist portrays a moral landscape, not in black and white, but in multiple shades and colours. This delicious complexity makes this book memorable, as does the ray of hope with which the story ends. Despite all his harsh conditioning, Sabby’s conscience and imagination continue to haunt him repeatedly, “like touching a scar where all feeling is dead, but isn’t.”

My detailed review is published in Sunday Herald

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Coffee house adda

New Year's Eve was spent in enlightened company. Fellow Zubaan author friends Anil Menon and Payal Dhar and I met up to exchange notes on the stories cooking on our keyboards, and caught up with everything else.

Psst! Here's the news straight from the horses' mouths. Expect more great fiction from these talented writers in the year ahead. Payal's A Shadow in Eternity trilogy Shadow series Satin  kept readers young and old enthralled. Maya Subramanyam's adventures are continuing in Eternity, and we can hope to read about them soon. Meanwhile, her most recent books, Satin and There's a Ghost in My PC are drawing more appreciative readers. If you haven't read them yet, do it soon.

  Buy Book The Beast With Nine Billion feet by Anil Menon Buy Book Breaking The Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired By The Ramayana by Anil Menon, Vandana SinghAnil was busy jointly selecting and editing the mind-blowing stories in Breaking the Bow, which offer original and highly imaginative alternate takeoffs on the Ramayana. He's also been pegging away on a major work of speculative fiction, aimed at adults this time. It's a complex and subtle story, he says, the speculative elements take a different turn from what we experienced in his first book, The beast With Nine Billion Feet. Will we see a sequel to 'Beast'? Anil smiles enigmatically, keeping us guessing and hoping.

Baaton baaton mein, we discovered that all of us can look forward to seeing our stories together in an anthology of love stories for older teens and adults, forthcoming from Scholastic

Steaming coffee and snacks at good old India Coffee House helped spread the bonhomie.
 This favourite haunt of yesteryear is now on a new location on Bangalore's Church Street. But the warm and cosy atmosphere remains the same, right down to the quaint furniture, slightly tarnished mirrors on blue distempered walls, and cheerful waiters. Not to mention the old favourites on their menu.

Coffee, much talk and browsing through bookstores later, it's time to take leave. A lovely note to end the old year and look forward with hope to 2013.