PG Wodehouse and Hrishikesh Mukherjee

A tribute to these great story tellers.

The twist and turns, the coincidences, the most extraordinary characters, the muddled up anti-climax and finally a happy ending, that is what characterizes a Wodehouse novel or a Mukherjee movie. Any given Sunday, start with any one of these and you will surely end up refreshed, far away from the week load of woes and worries.

Their plots usually have these ingredients (e.g. of Golmaal taken here): a love story to be saved (Amol Palekar and Bindiya Goswami), a narrator or story writer (Deven Verma, very explicitly in Rang Birangi), the gullible characters (Shubha Khote, the buaji), the lies and disguise (Dina Pathak), the tough quirky people (Utpal Dutt), the supporting members (David, mamaji; Manju Singh, sister) to bring in the complexities, the anticlimax mix up (Utpal Dutt in jail) and finally a happy ending.

In the latest Wodehouse I read ‘Uncle Fred in Springtime’, we could see exactly the same script. Love story of Polly & Ricky, Uncle Fred as chief narrator, plenty of gullible characters (almost everyone at Blanding’s Castle is gullible, especially those following Lord Emsworth’s bloodline!), lies and disguise at its best (honesty is the best policy only in the world which has no place for good humour), quirky people (Duke of Dunstable) and loads of supporting secretaries and butlers (Baxter, Beach et al). There is enough of disguise, imposers, pinching (British for stealing), gambling, hitting, detectives to weave a hilarious combination of events. However, what I like the best about Wodehouse is his language. These are the words from the book I read to my lanky husband the other night: Nature, stretching Horace Davenport out, had forgotten to stretch him sideways, and one could have pictured Euclid, had they met, nudging a friend and saying. ‘Don’t look now, but this chap coming along illustrates exactly what I was telling you about a straight line having length without breadth.’ 

There is some sort of message these incredible story tellers add in their stories. “World is full of snobs”, “lying is necessary evil” (a beautiful movie ‘Jhooti’ has a lead female character lying all the time!), men love to do manly stuff comprising of betting, losing money, cheating, beating up people, drinking, acting foolishly, on the other hand, women love to over-react and break-off marriages and need to be begged for pardon. There are also some deep lying messages. Khoobsoorat was all about understanding discipline in a different light. In words of Wodehouse “Marriage is a battlefield, not a bed of roses…. the only way of ensuring a happy married life is to get it thoroughly clear at the outset who is going to skipper the team.” These are pure words of wisdom.

Of course, one doesn’t read Wodehouse or watch Mukherjee to gain wisdom. The (lost) art created by these personalities was based around a kind of humour which is otherwise not seen anywhere else. Gulzar’s ‘khafiyas’ or poetry snippets in common man’s speech (Khubsoorat, 1980) can’t be found in any other motion picture. Only a few movies came after that era which could be considered to belong in the same league. Khosla ka Ghosla was one of them. I do wonder if we will see more writers like Wodehouse and more film makers like Mukherjee in years to come. I dearly wish, we do.

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Elements of a good sunday..

A good book – Yuganta (a must read)

An authentic movie – Ishqiya

Latest dancing track – uff teri adaa

Hot delicious food – sorry can’t share it as yet! (waiting for technology to transfer mass).

Friends to laugh with – :D plenty around everyone!

:)

Two quick thoughts on the book and the flick –

Yuganta is an anthropologist’s collection of essays on her interpretations of the Mahabharata. At places she has also used her imagination to fill the missing links. Iravati Karve was one of the first members in the family of educationists and it turns out I have studied with her daughters’ daughter and been taught by one of her daughter! It is such a charming change to read one of the most powerful story in the world told in such an academic fashion. It is a must read who have slightest of interest in history and the art of story-telling! I know it is the next gift for my mom!

About Ishqiya – what is this new trend of captivating audience with all the abuses one can think of? How come this idea sells like hot cakes? After all the experience of hanging out with great intellectual thinkers, educationists, world-reformers I have developed extreme respect for people who can sell. Whatever the product may be. Yes, at the end of everything is money. I still have to see people who are happy without any of it. No matter what you do, you have to sell your idea, your philosophy, your art, your music to succeed. Three cheers to VB for devising the winner formula for selling flicks!

Ghosh’s recipe

“It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.”

– Arundhati Roy, in The God of Small of Things

I am reminded of her whenever I read Amitav Ghosh’s fictions. Only two of them are on my shelf so far, the Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide. Both the books made me nostalgic and I had to pick Roy’s masterpiece again. Ofcourse, her story was like one of the Great Stories she describes above. I have found Ghosh to be closest to be achieving that feat. These books represent the most poetic prose I have ever read. The words, lines, pages just melt into mind like a soft fresh mousse. After the savory is gone from the plate, you cherish the after-taste for a long while. I guess among the three physiological needs (hunger, thirst, sex) I have one more to add – to read such books like Ghosh’s n Roy’s stories.

Unlike Roy, Ghosh’s stories are visibly informative. You can visualize the author must have been to these many places, talked to so-n-so people, collected material from plenty of sites before he sew all that up into his story. After the Glass Palace, I found myself wikipeding and googling on history of Myanmar and it’s connection to British India. On the one hand, so much information interrupts the flow of the story, it places the book into the category of well-written book and doesn’t let it remain the kind which you might have just heard in the village you happened to be in for say 2 months, the kind Roy writes. On the other hand, one marvels on Ghosh’s genius on achieving such an imaginative piece with so much factual information interwoven to it. One wonders, whether he first thought of a story, or whether he first chose the (real) incident or whether it all happened together.

Now, I have to give another try to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. I have read a third of it and am waiting to forget what I have read so far, to be able to make a fresh new start.

Timepass books

As per my speculation for future decades of my life, formed by looking at sample data from many-many lives around me (i have huge extended family with 12 uncles n aunts and I am the youngest in my generation at my mother’s side), I believe the best time to invest on books and music is either in or before twenties or in fifties (in case you take an early retirement). During college days like a true 6 pointer I would snatch any free minute and devote it either to day dreaming or to sweetest (in)activity of sleeping.  But once they were over, sleep also became a scarce commodity. Especially on weekday nights. After listening to plenty of Dev Anand in Guide – din dhal jaaye, raat na aaya; paying telephone bills which were equivalent to my house rent; I finally picked up Enid Blyton’s bed time stories.

One thing led to another and now I can’t go to bed without a book in my hand. If it is a beautiful piece something like Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, then it doesn’t last too many nights because I carry it forward to the day as well. The best bets are what are called timepass books. Like:

– Mediocre But Arrogant (Abhijit Bhaduri)

– State of Fear (Michael Crichton)

– Jeffery Archer (The fourth estate, A Twist in a Tail, Not a Penny Less Not a Penny More)

– Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A thousand Splendid Suns)

– Riot (Shashi Tharoor)

to name a few. These books are not so gripping that you can’t wait for another day to pass before you pick them again. They don’t leave with you introspective questions, like Mistry does. Neither do they give any such information, like Ghosh does, which would prompt you to jump out of bed to start you comp for googling and wikipedia-ing. They are perfect adult versions of Blyton’s and other classic children writings. Good guys Vs Bad guys. Happy endings. Or at least manageable well-defined endings. Unlike the twins meeting again after so and so years of separation as in The God of Small Things, which leaves you so unsatisfied (read depressed) that you need to find something delicious in kitchen to make up for it.

Until now this was the only impression I carried about these kinds of books. Also include Sidney Sheldon and any thriller/mystery novel in the above list. All are timepass books, not great pieces of literature. What I recently realized was, these books make pretty good source of information (which could be either correct or incorrect). In the least, they do manage to give a whole other perspective which was so far missing from your life. For instance, State of Fear (SoF) talks about corruption/politics/fraud in the major environmental agencies which claim to be sensitive towards nature. In the Fourth Estate by Archer one gets a small preview on the fight between newspaper giants and how it has permanent effects on the print media. I was reminded of TOI and HT fights and how the supplements just started coming when we were in middle school which now seem indispensable – even Indian Express has 3-4 supplements coming these days! Hosseini gives a picture and history of Afghanistan, which I take with a pint of salt, as it is coming from an American. But nonetheless, it is anytime better than those magazines articles on Baghdad (who knows the difference between Baghdad and Kabul anyways – they all are Muslims, themselves fundamentalists or under the capture of fundamentalists!), at least it is enjoyable!

In fact, writing a good story book and passing information through it seems to be a very good idea. Also it is a very difficult one. After writing so many assignments, I still dread writing an article on Caste (which I started writing today before changing to a less disputed topic). Because every time I start on it, I only end up reading more about it! Someday I am hoping, I would escape from procrastination and start writing on Caste.  Till then, I am glad to have found this new respect for the authors of timepass books! Also it is because of them that I am not yet insomniac!

A History of Fascination

“When we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there… We read landscapes, in other words, we interpret their forms in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our share cultural memory.”

Robert Macfarlane, the author of my latest love, “Mountains of the Mind” traces a history of the imagination which scrutinizes the ways people have imagined going into the mountains, how they have felt about them and how they have perceived them. From being considered the habitat of the supernatural and the hostile how mountain-worship became the thing of 1900s. 

The fellow climbers would surely be able to associate themselves with these lines from the book:

“The mountains one gazes at, reads about, dreams of and desires are not the mountains one climbs.”

“…The same historically holds for mountains. For centuries they were regarded as useless obstructions – considerable protuberances. now they are numbered among the world’s most exquisite forms, and people are willing to die for love of them.” 

A complete review would follow after I have finished reading the book.

Book: Mountains of the Mind

Author: Robert Macfarlane

Publications: Granta Publications

Available at Landmark in Gurgaon. 

The Spirit of Anne Frank

Had I been a guy, a Jew hopefully to undo with unwanted obstructions, in the times of 2nd World War and lived in Amsterdam, I would have definitely tried dating this wonderful girl who existed at the same time!

As usually quoted, The Diary of Anne Frank is the story of an ordinary girl, Anne, in extraordinary times of the Second World War. Anne starts writing after her 13th birthday in which she received the dairy as a gift (which she had asked for). She writes for more than 2 years, mostly in a hiding place, Secret Annex, where her family, one other gentleman and another family hides from the Gestapo or the Nazis because the Jews were being sent to their death in concentration camps.

Anne is looking for a real friend when she starts writing, as she finds paper more patient. She writes about her friends, and later about her life in hiding. She describes her relation with her mother and sister which she feels is superficial and rests only on the family ties and not on individual liking. She is very close to his father and treats him as her role model. All the occupants of Secret Annex and frequent visitors and helpers are described in details in the diary. Being the youngest and a teenager, she is often scolded and reprimanded and she longs for affection most.

Anne’s diary which she calls Kitty hears everything – Anne’s beautiful thoughts, her dreams and nightmares, her ambitions to be different from ordinary girls, her interests, her mood swings (typical in a teenager), her longing for love, her fights with family, rapid changes in her as matures, her becoming independent and losing the dependencies on her family and friends, and above all the spirit of Anne Frank. Every time I read this book, I get some new insights. No wonders Anne wanted to be a writer, a journalist. And she did become one! A very famous one too!

I don’t think I would do justice to the book if I attempt to write anymore. Here is one of my most favorite paragraphs from the book:

This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: “Think about all the suffering in the world and be thankful you’re not a part of it.” My advice is: “Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy.

 

How we fail

John Holt’s How Children Fail is one of the many books which Arvind Gupta’s site share in MSWord format. “Educational Classic” was what site said for the book. So I (mis)used the office resources and got myself a print out of the book. To read at my leisure. It soon became the best thing I have in my collection.

This book supposedly was first of those thought-provoking books which initiated the educational reforms in 60ies in the US. A very simply written book, it is a compilation of author’s notes/letters to a friend/himself describing small day to day events of his class. John Holt is one real psychologist. Unlike any other psychologist I have ever read of. He observes kids in his class at work/at play, understands them, reads their descriptive faces and draws learnings from this exercise. His major concern is why/how children fail. It is this search which leads him to be so patient with kids, so open-minded, so creative that it makes him totally apart from a typical school teacher. I started reading this book so as to know what arguments’ Holt would have against school learning. I ended up knowing a lot more about learning techniques, how I myself fail at learning new things, and what kind of learner I am in different circumstances. In short, I learnt a lot about myself.

Holt argues that children fail primarily because they are afraid, bored and confused. This, combined with misguided teaching strategies and a school environment that is disconnected from reality and “real learning”, results in a school system that kills children’s innate desire to learn.

I couldn’t have agreed more with him. Ofcourse this is usually the case in classrooms. Even in professional studies. Reading the description of a young girl whose mind would go blank while sitting for a math sums exam, I could associate myself with her completely. I even remembered a time when sitting in a 3 hr exam in L7 I was literally crying. I wasn’t one of those who had guts or will to cheat. And the stuff didn’t make any sense to me. I knew I was going to fail. The examination sheet in front of me was a desperate effort to save that “F”. The questions the problems didn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t have cared less about them. It wasn’t anything like it used to be in school. When the motto used to be to crack the problem. Screw the exam, concentrate on the question. IIT was a totally opposite experience. Classes were thoroughly boring. I was confused while going through lecture notes. And exams literally scared shit out of me. I am not saying everyone who fails in IIT have such horrible experiences. But this is true in general in any new learning situation.

Take for instance, cooking. It is an elementary skill and anyone can cook. Unlike painting. I know people who just *hates* cooking. And these are some of those people who *have to* cook nevertheless. Because, they are a mother or a wife. My mom, an expert cook and cooking-teacher, would tell you how people who fail to learn to cook are often those who are afraid. They are either afraid that they would goof up with the dish or that they would hurt themselves. Or just the simple fact that they might not learn. So the first lesson when you enter the kitchen is to know that cooking is very easy.

When I was reading Holt’s groundbreaking book, I was at that stage when you are expected to show results out of first 2-3 months of pure learning in office. I had realised that I have not really learnt any fundamental stuff. I had practiced a lot of mechanical computation on excel, SAS coding and so on, but I had not developed any analytical skills as such, not gained any business sense. Holt’s book explained to me why. Managers dump all the mechanical repeatitive work on you and you are always in an intense pressure to deliver on time. First thing that kills your curiosity or will to know/learn more. My first action when I went back to office was to stop delivering and working for my manager. I started assigning work to myself. Something poor kids can’t do. They are made to sit still in classrooms and made to memorize stuff.

Next I realised I would be happily day-dreaming in meetings (which would be innumerable in the day) because most the content didn’t make sense to me. I was too afraid to ask questions or too dishonest to accept that I didn’t understand a lot of things. Another thing I blame schooling for. We have practiced the art of lying/cheating so well all through our lives that it comes naturally to us now. The intensely listening face, the thinking face, the appropriate nodding, the concentrating look which we all carry while day-dreaming, comes from training in school. We ourselves don’t realise when we have drifted into a different world. And then we curse the mind-numbling job! I guess we make it so mind-numbling ourselves.

“When we talk about intelligence, we do not mean the ability to get a good score on a certain kind of test, or even the ability to do well in school; these are at best only indicators of something larger, deeper, and far more important. By intelligence we mean a style of life, a way of behaving in various situations and particularly in new, strange, and perplexing situations. The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how do we behave when we don’t know what to do.

This is what Holt have to say about intelligence, and how schools contribute enough to kill the inherent intelligence in kids. But the good thing is, just as intelligence is killed, it can again be grown. Because I am not as intelligent as I thought I was, but I definitely will soon be! ;-)

The Metamorphosis

 “Suppose all that you have always valued in your life was shown to be an illusion. What if your precious beliefs, maxims, platitudes, and traditions were inverted and distorted beyond recognition? You suddenly realize that what is good is bad; what is beauty is foul; what is virtue, vice. What if all your points of reference were to shift: North becomes South; black becomes white; deviant becomes saint; saint becomes deviant. Suppose that this transformation – a metamorphosis of perception – were to come to you and you alone. Suddenly you awake, and in utter solitude you discover that your values have reversed along with you: you are a roach!” (http://www.vr.net/~herzogbr/kafka/).Your world is abruptly and totally changed! This is Gregor portrayed in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

I have often wondered what it would be like if all this ever happens to me. If not exactly something as weird/horrible as being changed into an insect, what if all the base on which all my faith lies is suddenly removed – what if I am proved wrong about something I have believed always without doubting once. It is this fear which prevents me in forming any firm opinions/judgements about people/instances/world affairs/good-bad-n-ugly things! But being a rational human being, I have to have some opinions in order to live, the basic requirement of survival is being able to differentiate between good/bad. Even the tiniest of insects (without any brains) are also able to distinguish between things which are harmful to them. Infact it is easier for them, atleast so it seems, they only have to live a physical existence – without a trace of mental/spiritual element in it – and so their world is binary in nature. What hurts is bad, what nourishes is good. Rest all is ignored or kept away from.

We, humans, are also brought up in a similar fashion. And if we stick to out faith-base, we would live a peaceful un-complex life as insects. But no, we have our problems. We question. Then we think. We interact. We change. And we keep doing all this in a circular fashion. And then a point comes when we wonder if we are only moving round & round in the circle just like new Delhi-ites in the CP outer circle. The climax is reached when you know you can’t even verify the right/wrong since the absolute doesn’t exist.

Take for instance a simple example from the lives around any 23-27 yrs old earning-living-their-own-lives (ELTOL) kind of people. Almost all of them drink (liquor ofcourse!). Almost/atleast once a week. Quite a substantial amount. They drink when they meet old friends, they drink while getting de-stressed on Friday night, they drink so as to be able to dance on Saturday night, they drink so as to be able to speak up things they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. If they don’t drink, something’s amiss in life. If nothing else, there are not many other enjoyable activities to get indulged into either. None of them would accept, but each know there is a level of dependency on liquor. The question here would be: SO? What’s wrong in drinking? What’s wrong in depending on something very little harmful as long as you are not addicted? How does it matter if we live upto 80 or not neways? And didn’t a newspaper said once that 1-2-3 peg(s) a week keeps the doctor away?! Hic! I would further question, what’s wrong even if you are addicted? When the question is about right/wrong, who can say what’s wrong with being a drunkard when it makes one happy? Why do look scornfully at those cycle/auto-rickshaw drivers (or any other low class men) who drink away the little income they make during the day? We blame them for not sending their children to good school, for not saving enough for decent living, whereas we ourselves crib about the mindless meaningless job we did in comfy chairs sipping CCD coffee 5 days a week over the booze on the relaxing weekend. Why do we scorn those uncivilised homo sapiens who waste their lives over marijuina/other drugs? Most of these ELTOL believed 10 years back that drinking was harmful. Most of these ELTOL after 10-15 years would tell their children that drinking is harmful. But right now, they are in the other cycle. Which says, drinking is not to be shy-ed away from.

Not that I mean to say that people change completely many a times during their lifetimes. Infact I firmly believe that the real you remains the same. What this real you is, I can’t define appropriately right away. But it definitely doesn’t include what values have been incorporated in you, or what right/wrong has been defined for you/by you. Instead it is very much what The Metamorphosis tries to bring out. What makes you guilty even after you have boldly ridiculed all the virtues held by the world, when you have lost your reputation in the eyes of everyone around you. How quickly all of us accept the new surroundings, and the new self. If or not we are able to we fit ourselves in the fight for survival. And how we forget the past which remains as “My Pictures” folder on your hard disk, sometimes to be looked at. How the circumstances changed you, and how the change in you changes everyone around you. Because they all are also, only trying to fit in.

The God of Small Things

Don’t ask me why she titled it so. You would need to read the book for that. Every page. Every word. And if your choice is any bit similar to mine, then you are going to love it. No, more than that. You are going to love to live in it.

Generally we like the stuff we can relate ourselves to. Any one character in a novel that could be like us- having the same fears, dreads in life. Or when we are so different from all the characters then we can sit in the judge’s chair and have a nice time either ways. A friend pointed out (the only other person I could find who enjoyed the book) rightly that the novel is gloomy. It is set in a dark background, a lonely house, a lost home, a dying river, a deadly mystery of the past – all seen from the eyes of siblings who had lost their childhood. It is not possible to relate to any character as such. And the book is no where like the classic Dickens, Bronte. In which there are evil people who deliberately take away the childhood of miserable orphans. Not that I dont appreciate classics. Before TGST, I was reading Jane Eyre and it was a nice change after Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. The story was simple, with a heroine as protagonist, with short and miserable childhood and how she copes up with everything and develops a strong and appealing character. Obviously, Jane Eyre is a femenist book, and very relevant when you consider the fact that the book had to be published using a different pen name, as nobody would have read it had Charlotte used her own name and hence claimed that a female was smart enough to pull off a book like that. Those were such days. Same is not true any longer. A female can be smart enough to be an Indian and yet pull off a Booker now. Hence, I better like her half drawn character sketches now. Let your imagination grow with the book. Complete the image yourself. Let the guildlines for right/wrong be established after the book’s over.

So whats great about the book? There is nothing new or unexpected about the story. There is melodrama, there is heroine, hero, violence, tears, sex, love, hate. And yet it is not like a Hindi movie. It is very much life like. Again It is not informative or depective as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fince Balance or Family Matters. Yet like any other Indian writer (barring Chetan Bhagat – I prefer calling him what he likes to be called – a youth writer!) Roy weaves a simple sad story on the political, cultural, religious background in the changing times in a small village. But more than the story and the way she tells it, I marvelled at her style of writing. I was in a awed state for some days, still am. She is like this radical writer who doesnt believe in effusive writing. who doesnt believe in completeing her sentences. Who had challenged the traditional style of writing and come out outstanding, successful. When there is terror, she succeeds in spreading it over the heart of  the reader. When there is joy, the reader smiles unconsciously like a child, a full beam smile. You would be a part of the book without having to relate to the character, without being able to judge any of them. She set new trends in the style of writing. Only JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye impressed me this much before. Salinger’s story is narrated by a teen-adult, the rebellious cynical teen skeptic of the adult world. Roy’s book also hints on the same style, with the child-who-are-adults-now looking at the old and the new world.

Let me end this blog with a particularly interesting paragraph from the book:

“…They were not friends, Comrade Pillai and Inspector Thomas Mathew, and they didn’t trust each other. But they understood each other perfectly. They were both men whom childhood had abandoned without a trace. Men without curiosity. Without doubt. Both in their own way truly, terrifyingly adult. They looked out at the world and never wondered how it worked, because they knew. They worked it. They were the mechanics who served different parts of the same machine.”

Do read the book if you get time, chance and the book!