On Death, Nostalgia and the Lost Art of New Discoveries

Deewane Huye Paagal

Deewane Huye Paagal: The dreadful movie that got me musing on Death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It happened while I was travelling down from Pune to Mumbai on one of those buses that insist on playing forgettable, supposedly funny movies like Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya and Hungama. This time, it was the execrable Vikram Bhatt movie, Deewane Huye Paagal, a rip-off of the 1998 movie, There’s Something About Mary.

Naturally, I then started thinking about the Hollywood original, and my mind drifted off to Cameron Diaz and what she was like back in the ‘90s: so blonde, so pretty and so utterly fresh.  Musing on her took me back to the days when I had just begun to discover Hollywood. I knew very few names, and Cameron Diaz (along with Jim Carey and Julia Roberts) was one of them. (Bear with me: I have a point here which I will eventually make.) Anyway, “Whatever happened to Cameron Diaz,” I mused, “that she’s now doing shit like Bad Teacher.” She had shown so much potential in those early movies; yes, even in The Mask. And now, all one read about were her relationships with younger men.

And that got me thinking about myself: what I had been like when I first saw Cameron Diaz on screen and what I am like now. Had I lived up to the expectations that my younger self had set? Had I realized my full potential? I wasn’t sure that I had. It depressed me to think of those days when I knew so little and there was still so much of the world waiting to be discovered.

I won’t say that I know a lot now. I don’t think I possibly can. But that delicious sense of discovering something new, that heart-pounding excitement you get when you think you’ve stumbled on an original idea or even the fiery passion that you feel for ideas that may not be your own, but which you have complete faith in: I haven’t felt any of that in a dreadfully long time.  Everything  I read now, and everything  I watch or listen to has a dull familiarity to it.

The biggest problem with getting older is not that we’re getting closer to death. If that were the only thing, it frankly, wouldn’t be so much of a problem. After, as Albus Dumbledore said, Death is the beginning of a new adventure. Or some such. The exact wording isn’t important.  The point here is that even at death’s doorstep, we can look forward to a new adventure. We’re in the final stages of shedding our old skin and growing a new one and who knows what will emerge on the other side?

And yet, we’re all terrified of death. I often wonder why that is. It shouldn’t be because it’s The Great Unknown. That’s exactly what ought to make it exciting – the fact that we don’t know anything about it. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m terrified of death myself, and if I found out I had only a few more days or months or years to live, I honestly don’t know if I would have any courage to go on living in the brief time I had left.  Yes, death terrifies us. But I think that’s largely because we look back with so much regret on our lives. Most of us do. You do. Admit it. You may only be in your late twenties, but you’re already looking back on your college years or the first few years of your working life with great nostalgia. Ah, those were the good old times, weren’t they? You stayed up all night, talking with friends, drinking coffee and sharing a plate of Maggi. You went out partying, drank like a fish with no liver and could survive on Uncle Chips for a whole week.

Now, you can’t drink beer without feeling bloated and just one packet of Kurkure is enough to make you feel like your stomach is a nuclear wasteland. You can no longer sleep for two hours on a friend’s rock-hard mattress and still wake up feeling fresh. And hungry for three-egg omelettes.

I bet a lot of you reading this are sighing right now. Just like I am, while writing this. I miss those good old days too when there the simple delight of stumbling across a wonderful old book by some East European exile was enough to power me through the week. Or watching back-to-back Satyajit Ray films would be an education in itself.

I’m not yet 30 and already I feel old. All I see around me is shit dressed up in librarian glasses and pretending to be the bee’s knees.  Movies are all remakes of Hollywood films or South Indian sooper-dooper hits which weren’t brilliant to begin with. Television shows are all sitcoms with laughter tracks or weepies with over-dressed men and women.  And the books? Frankly, I fall asleep after reading two pages and my husband has to usually remove my glasses and gently prise the book out of my hands, so that I can snooze more comfortably.

Sorry, did I say I would make a point? Turns out, I don’t have one. I’m bored and I miss new things. You know, sparkly, new things that will make my blood sing in my ears and I will grab anybody I can and tell them about this awesome new thing I just read/watched/heard. The Age of Discovery is officially over.

Book # 11 The Wednesday Soul by Sorabh Pant

The first thought that entered my brain, as I plunged headlong into The Wednesday Soul by Sorabh Pant, was that this was clearly a tribute to Douglas Adams. Just like that incomparable comic writer, Pant has taken a mighty leap off the edge of the Plausibility Cliff, and has swum, with some success, in the Sea of Improbability. He has, like Adams, created characters with varied shades of quirk in them and has also, like Adams again, shown us that the idea of death (or destruction) has great comic potential.

Unlike the late great Adams, however, Pant is still mastering the art of writing. I’ve watched his stand-up routine a couple of times and I’ve always enjoyed it. Pant has great energy and a wonderful sense of comic timing when he’s on the stage and he brings this to his book as well. However, a stand-up act does not last more than an hour, so the joke-a-second formula works perfectly well in that format. In a book, however, it can get exhausting. There seem to be at least four punchlines in every paragraph and unfortunately, it seems like that is all there is to it.

Another major problem I had with the book was that too many things seemed to be happening together. The action shifts constantly between two different sets of characters and only in the end, is there some semblance of cohesion.  There are LOTS of characters and some of them are genuinely funny, but the problem with having lots of characters – all of whom have something important to contribute to the story – is that sometimes the author simply doesn’t have time to build enough back-story for them, or give them enough depth to make us care. One instance is that of the mysterious Radha N. Recliws, who gives us the introduction to the story, then disappears for most of the book except to give us bits of information at the beginning of every chapter. He only reappears right at the end.  Now, this Recliws is an intriguing character – you’ll know when you read the book – but his reappearance is abrupt, and consequently, seems very tacked on. Remember how bewildered you were when Gandalf the Grey suddenly reappears as Gandalf the White in The Two Towers?  At least in that instance Tolkein had built up the story enough to make us care that Gandalf had returned to the narrative. In The Wednesday Soul, there’s no such build-up.  It’s just action, action, action.

But you probably want to know what the plot is, so here it is in a few words: Nyra Dubey, is an vigilante who is suddenly killed by a bus. She’s furious because she had finally managed to get herself a boyfriend, and now all she can think of is how she can get back to him. Unfortunately, the afterlife is pretty much like real life, in that whatever you want to do is not as important as what the powers-that-be want you to do. Nyra is constantly thwarted by red tapism. She also finds out that sinister plans are afoot, which may throw the whole balance or life/after-life off-kilter.

So what is it about the book that works? As I said at the beginning, The Wednesday Soul shows great imagination.  Pant has created his own version of the afterlife with some truly brilliant concepts like the categorization of souls. He’s also introduced celebrated people – fictitious and non-fictitious, including Marie Curie, Agatha Christie and Guru Dutt – as minor characters.

Reading this book proved more difficult than I had expected, and in all fairness, I must admit that most of the time, it wasn’t Pant’s fault. What really lets the book down is the shoddy editing: there are quite a few spelling errors, and the breaks traditionally used to separate scenes are often missing.  Since the book has a fairly complicated plot, such errors on the part of the editors is unforgivable.

The book seems to have been generally well-received and there’s already talk of a sequel.  I would congratulate Pant on the success of his first novel, but I would also warn him to take a little more time with his next one. Perhaps that will make it easier to read, and also funnier.

Book #10 Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fondness for Truman Capote’s work. I can’t say it enough: the man was a literary genius. He spun sentences with such skill and deftness that one couldn’t possibly improve upon them. His prose is the most effective example I’ve read of painting pictures with words. Sample this description of a nameless Alabama place:

“…this is lonesome country; and here in the swamplike hollows where tiger lilies bloom the size of a man’s head, there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses; often the only movement on the landscape is winter smoke winding out the chimney of some sorry-looking farmhouse, or a wing-stiffened bird, silent and arrow-eyed, circling over the black deserted pinewoods.”

This is from the opening paragraph of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first published novel. It tells us the story of 12 year old Joel Knox, who sets off from New Orleans after the death of his mother, to go and live with his father at Skully’s Landing, in Alabama. His father had abandoned him at birth and this would be the first time that two are meeting.  Only, other people, who are not his father, await little Joel as he arrives at the decaying mansion: the sullen, jittery stepmother Amy, the narcissistic and flamboyant Cousin Randolph, the paranoid servant Zoo who dreams of escaping to Washington DC and her grandfather Jesus Fever. Joel doesn’t meet his father until halfway through the book, and then he discovers that the father he had hoped would support him, needs taking care of himself. Edward R. Sansom, Joel’s father, is now paralyzed and cannot communicate with anyone except by rolling a red ball on the floor to get their attention.

It’s clear that Joel has arrived in a place where all that’s left is ruin and broken dreams.  This is where the significance of the passage that I quoted becomes clear. It sets the tone for the rest of the book: that “lonesome country” with its “dark marsh water” and “black deserted pinewoods” prepares us to enter a landscape that reflects the deep melancholy that will mark Joel’s new life. His father is an invalid, his stepmother is peculiar and Randolph wears his depression and dissipation like a cloak. It’s a strange place and the only person who manages to enliven life for Joel is the local tomboy, Idabel Thompkins.  Idabel, who develops a bit of a crush on our forlorn hero, is wild, loud and prickly. Not exactly hug and kiss material,as Joel finds out, much to his dismay. But she is the only bright spot on the horizon for him; she offers him a chance to escape the dull misery of life at Skully’s Landing and Joel grabs at it, only to find out that it’s not so easy to let go of one life and start a new one.

Truman Capote , 1948

Truman Capote , 1948 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite the way Joel gets sucked back into life at Skully’s Landing, the novel is also about renewals and rebirth. More specifically, it’s about accepting oneself and one’s circumstances, as Joel does at the end of the novel. One popular interpretation of the novel has it that it’s a ‘coming-out’ story: in the final scene, when Joel goes to join the mysterious lady in the window (who we now know is Randolph in drag), he’s finally accepting, and celebrating, his own homosexuality – just like a young Capote once did.

In fact, most readers agree that Joel was just a stand-in for Capote himself, since the novel has strong auto-biographical elements. Like Joel, Capote was a lonely little boy who barely knew his parents and was raised mostly by relative. In fact, Capote himself admitted that the major theme of the novel was a son’s search for his father.

To me, however, it seems like Other Voices, Other Rooms is about finding love and acceptance in the most forbidding of places. Joel finds out that he does belong in Skully’s Landing, after all, and that there are people here who care about him.  He is no longer a poor little orphan boy, but a mature young man now, who is confident enough in himself to let his guard down finally and let people get close to him. We realize that the difficult part for Joel was not finding love, but to let himself be loved.  The most forbidding place, then, was Joel’s own heart. And once he found acceptance for himself there, he found acceptance elsewhere.

Separated at Birth?

Two books, published about a year apart, with such similar looking covers. Not sure if the person who designed the cover of the Jerry Pinto novel ever saw the cover of the Katie Ward book. Of course, there are some differences: the colour, the details of the silhouette, the fonts etc. If I had to pick, I would say I prefer the cover of Em and the Big Hoom. While Girl Reading‘s colour is fabulous – it catches the eye and makes you want to pick up the book – the cover of the Pinto novel actually tells us a little about what to expect from the novel. As has been written in various publications and blogs, Em and the Big Hoom is Pinto’s semi-autobiographical account of a family, where the mother slowly descends into madness. The whorls and curls inside the woman’s silhouette could very well depict the tumultuous – and undecipherable – inner life of Imelda, or ‘Em’  as she is referred to by her children.  It’s not a book I have read yet; but I’m really hoping to get my hands on a copy by this weekend. Going by what some of the book reviewers I admire the most are saying, it will be quite the lit treat.

My Column on Helter Skelter

What accounts for our great love for Dexter Morgan – a love so great, that we are willing to overlook his little ‘Hobby’? Or is it this hobby that makes us love him so much. Examining our morbid fascination for Miami’s most famous fictitious serial killer is this column I wrote for Helter Skelter. You can check it out here.

Didn’t know I had a column? Worry not. You check out the other TV shows I have covered.

Sherlock – Why the 21st century version of Watson and Holmes is the most perfect yet. Read the column here.

Game of Thrones – How this cult fantasy series became a huge mainstream TV success. Read the column here.

True Blood – Unlike other recent Vampire fiction, True Blood retains a complex view of fangers. Read the column here.

Book #9 Marathon Baba by Girish Kohli

Title: Marathon Baba

Author: Girish Kohli

Publishers: Fingerprint!

Price: Rs 150


As I flipped through the pages of Marathon Baba the very first time, I was distinctly dissatisfied. On the back cover flap, the author, Girish Kohli was described as having been born “on the day when a dog in the US was put on trial and executed for barking too much”. Girish, it went on to say, “hasn’t passed out of the IITs or the IIMs. He doesn’t have a day job either. If you wish to speak to him, you will not find him either on Facebook or Twitter. He drives a jeep without a spare tyre and is the author of two unpublished novels. Marathon Baba, his third book which has been published first, is the only book in the world based on a pair of unused running shoes”.

What put me off about this author bio was that it used the tired old trick of using humour on the back flap. It felt a bit too much. I mean, I know this is a funny book, but when I read an author bio, I’m looking for actual information.  Information about his social networking or lack thereof is not going to help me understand his work better.

At this point, I must confess that when the book arrived from the publishers, I was in a very cranky mood. I had just read another ‘humour’ book: an endless, tiresome bore of a book with too many words and too little wit. So naturally, I looked on another ‘humour’ book – complete with a funny author bio – with ill-concealed loathing.

Turns out, it was a good thing. Because I was expecting so little enjoyment from Marathon Baba, it hit me with quite a wallop when I realized that I was racing through it and enjoying it immensely. Sometimes people like me need that wallop. It keeps us from becoming overbearing cynics and turning to one-note bores.

Now, if you’re one of those who view the boom in Indian publishing with sinking hearts, be of good cheer. There is at least Marathon Baba, which you can read and actually enjoy.  The book is written with a frantic pace which reflects its main concept: that a man can keep running away from his troubles and still find salvation. No, really! It’s the opposite of everything we’ve read in Paulo Coelho books.

The plot in a few short sentences: Boy Karna grows up in bad home. Mom and Dad fight. Boy runs away for the first time.  After that, he runs away from other problems like girl who broke his heart and a dead-end job.  He finds that he can’t stop running. That’s his salvation, his peace. He finds a magical pair of sneakers which go on to be a major point of contention in the novel.  Karna ends up founding the Marathon Ashram which becomes a refuge to all those who are running from something or the other.  He refuses to be religious and refuses to be political and that, ultimately, may be his downfall.

A deeply cynical vein runs through Marathon Baba and it is not afraid to poke at Modern India’s holy cows. Corporate jobs, the idea of success, the ubiquity of politics and religion, worship of celebrity and our desperate need for someone, anyone to lead us – all of these are skilfully skewered by Kohli. There’s no denying that the prose tends to be a little uneven, but there’s great energy in this book. It’s almost as if it was written under the influence of the kind of drugs that Marathon Baba sells to fund his ashram.

Marathon Baba is not a very heavy book and it won’t take too much of your time. Don’t hesitate to pick this up if you’re looking for a story that will breathlessly take you right till the end and will make you laugh as well.