Friday, September 23, 2005
As always, it's raining outside and drops are sliding down my window lazily. There are hundreds of streaks like this, and of dried lines as well on the large glass pane. The concrete below is dark green and the building opposite is dry and wet in places. Beneath some parapets pigeons sit quietly and watch the rain. There is the noise of a busy world from far away, but here everything is nearly still. Right now, a watchman walks by dragging his bamboo stick behind him. Besides him nothing else moves. It's another quiet, contemplatively gray day in Bombay, and just right for a hot cup of adrakchai.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Each recent month had brought with it hours of lost power. And there were the disasters, the burst cloud, the collapsing buildings, the confrontations between politicians who were once united, the bar girls. Each day greeted us with a sympathetic smile, and I am certain others felt this as well. It's been a weary summer. The experienced say it was always this way, that this regression is new only to you foreign-returnees. They smile and pat and say "keep going" because the city hasn't collapsed, they say, and their lives are better than they were some years ago and they now have broadband and supermarkets and modern cars, they say. It isn't comforting because "life is better now" says nothing. A smooth road, clear drains, uninterrupted power will say a lot more. It's a place to start.
I don't feel like dancing now. Perhaps tomorrow morning will be better.
Monday, September 19, 2005
The corridor on the second floor was a collection of bored accused, listless constables and smug lawyers. It was strangely chilling to realise that the accused had faith in justice. In many cases, my prejudiced eye had convicted most of them already. There was another discovery, and this brought a rush of panic: the courts branched off the corridor just as classrooms did in school; the colours were familiar, the smells were of the same musky academia. And the manner – how everything came back so suddenly, so quickly without warning! – the manner in which the judge faced the rest resembled countless colourless lessons. The real terrors that school held returned then to affect me in adulthood, and they had grown in ten years to adult proportions.
A bald lawyer with wispy red hair in Court No 4* represented a man accused of possessing 160 kilograms** of hashish. The end of his flaccid nose sloped downwards past his upper lip when he smiled, especially when the sneer followed a question to a nervous anti-narcotics officer. One such instance, when he smiled at me, I looked evasively to his feet and saw, beyond them, a large rock. In a room of straight lines, it stood out as a physical anomaly. For an instant I could see nothing, no judge, no court, but only the rock in violent hands, brought down repeatedly for dramatic effect. A nearby constable confirmed that it was indeed used to take a life. And then I noticed the other articles of evidence lying below the desk near the witness stand.
Bundles of clothes were stacked against the walls – further evidence? – and the ground was dusty. Rusty green filing cabinets stood between doors, and the windows above were opaque now but, one sensed, transparent and less foreboding years ago, when this building was new. And now, though it was known as the ‘new building’, its age was lost in wrinkles.
The courtroom could have been the corridor; whoever wished to observe the proceedings could do so, and could leave when they wished to. If they chose to stay, this is what they would have seen: every question, every answer, was followed by a long pause as the judge dictated words to a stenographer troubled by his accent; the narcotics officer clenched the railing of the witness box when the lawyer questioned his version of events; the lawyer did not know his client’s name, once correcting himself, “Mr. Pringle…Mr.Pingley…whatever his name is.”; and around me the accused sat hand in hand with the police as they waited for their version of justice. Here I felt as helpless as I have ever felt, more than death visiting because death was over in an instant while the court decided the turn lives took, and the courtroom, I realized, was a place not where the sharp distinction between guilt and innocence was found but where the lines blurred.
As the argument continued, a figure sat by me and shuffled closer. “Are you a reporter?” he asked. I said yes, to which he smiled but said nothing, sensing I was preoccupied. It struck me that the people here were not picnickers, so I asked him what he was doing here.
“I am here for murder,” he said with a warm smile. The smile did not soothe the raised hair on my neck or the tightening stomach knot. He used his hands – his free hands – descriptively as he spoke of exactly what the case was about. “This man, this judge,“ he said, “is an idiot. Look at him. He’s joking with the lawyer while we’re waiting for him.” He swept his arm across the bench where there sat a Nigerian, two men in salwar-khameez, and a slight man surrounded by three constables. He repeated this loudly, attracting attention to us momentarily, and I asked him to softly explain why the judge was an idiot.
His reasons were grudging for repeated bail applications had been rejected, and this time was no different. After he made his plea, the judge dismissed him with a wave, and his reaction was surprising. The accused turned to me, grinned through a beard and winked before he was led away, as if he had expected an outcome no different. I understood, but it was an understanding of a different kind. Between the creaky cabinets and unused clothes and open evidence, there didn't seem much space for justice.
*In my interest, the court number's identity has been protected.
**Also, the amount in kilos has been changed, though the actual amount is larger.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
The disappearing sidewalk
Stepping across to my favorite bookstore entails crossing this stretch of gravel. This place has the air of one where progress and construction are imminent. In truth, the gravel has been here for two years. The red bricks meant to cover it have appeared, disappeared, appeared, and recently disappeared once again. Some materials, to fill the gaps between the bricks, recently lay in white plastic sacks in a cluster outside one store. Those too are gone. Anything that is not nailed to the floor or high out of reach has been spirited away. But no one touches the gravel, though one day I believe they will discover its value for sound effects and will scoop it away. Then the road will be stolen, foot by foot, until there is no tar, and then the sand beneath will go too. Underground telecommunication pipes will be the new pavements, before they too are finally gone. Arms spread wide, we will balance precariously on them and dream of murder like Shalimar on a tightrope. Inch by inch, everything will disappear.
Four Septembers go by
Here's one account, by Sukhdev Sandhu, in the London Review of Books:
"A woman trips in the middle of the street and a dozen people all rush to help her. Strangers grasp each other by the wrist or the shoulders as they speak; they suddenly need to feel warmth, a human pulse ... And at every intersection clumps of people stand mesmerised as they gaze at the smoke fluming up in the distance. 'Where exactly was the building?' one asks. His friends aren't sure. Like many of the city's residents they've long taken the skyline for granted. Only tourists and newcomers ever look at it that closely."
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
55 words on 1st-grade love
Michael Higgins tagged me with the 55-word story thing, so it's all his fault. Take revenge by heading over to his rather interesting site: Chocolate and Gold Coins.
And just two days ago Flintoff, Warne and Federer painted our tv screens red. Now there is Ganguly'x XI vs Mugabe's riff-raff. Bring those three back, even if it's only in replays.
Monday, September 12, 2005
Travels to unknown places
At airports, when there is time to kill, I sit beneath giant flipboards that announce where planes are headed and what their current status is. These black boards, with their green and red lights blinking, are magnets for the mind. The plane to Reykjavik is currently boarding at gate 12, and there is a last call at gate 3 for the Emirates to Johannesburg. Beneath it a family dressed for a safari scurry somewhere; a lady struts past, her intoxicating scent whipping those in her wake; everywhere, different nationalities and colours are rummaging and talking and heading in similar directions as they weave through the airport's processes.
Everybody is going somewhere. I am too, but I know what lies there. And so the journey loses some glitter. I know the roads and paths at the other end. The streets will be tarred, yellow dashes painted against their dark surface, there will be a traffic jam there, and it is advisable to leave a tip no less than 17.5% of the overall bill. This is what I will find there. But the other names on this board, they will take me to the Palace of Versailles where forgotten history lessons will come back, to Uluru where the stories haven't changed for a thousand years, to the Bosporus, to cave paintings at Lascaux, to the mosque in Cairo, to the world's great libraries, to the gun markets in Somalia, to where Rai comes from, to the Northern Lights, and to other places that are significant in personal symbolism if not history.
And the names keep flipping, and the signboard taunts, "This is where you could go and you could go there too, and that, my friend, is another flight missed, but wait, there is another in that direction boarding at the gate nine strides away. Go on, you know you want to." And I think, "just wait, it's a matter of time. One day you will run out of names, run out of places for me to visit. Your flips will be useless, every name visited and learnt from in this lifetime. Then you can taunt someone else enough for him to turn red, loosen his tie and say to you, 'That's it, where's my rucksack?'"
But it's just a signboard. What does it know how much it says with a single flip?
Saturday, September 10, 2005
Judging books by their cover
But design does not stop at the book jacket. How well the letters are spread out, how comfortably spaced the lines are, what typeface to use, how to signify the start of a new paragraph, how to design the title of each chapter; all these are dilemmas decent designers would mull over as one would a math problem or a swish of a paintbrush. Then there is the dilemma of generosity. How much can the designer give to the reader and the author without compromising his own beliefs and chances of an award? But this problem does not apply here. It is the first lot that are a concern at the moment.
Some publishers carpet-bomb us with words; Penguin in India is one of those culprits. One look at most of their books and you would imagine design was something those crazy foreigners with their subversive western influences did for a lark. After all, why spend time on how a book looks if people buy it for its content? That is an argument with no end. But I have empathy for the reader and the author. To be forced with a sea of words printed at an angle in blotchy ink on gritty pages is mildly unpleasant and bloody irritating. To see your manuscript mauled spectacularly and called a book only because it eventually has a fleeting resemblance to one can also be upsetting.
Inspiration cannot be a hurdle. Beside these books lie designs that transform books into even more of a collector's item. The Master and Margarita is one such, as is the sepia-tinted Simon Winchester's Calcutta and Murakami's and Coetzee's books by Vintage. These designs become the author's signature. Look at John Grisham. The Pelican Brief: crackled backround, beveled typeface. The Rainmaker: same. The Street Lawyer: more of the same. (Grisham is being used for the signature aspect, not the quality of design.)
The inspiration is all there. And surely publishers know how much influence good design exerts. How to describe the longing one feels on noticing a well-designed book, regardless of the subject? It is like noticing an interesting person from a distance and being convinced that compatibility is inevitable.
"There is nothing more fit to be looked at than the outside of a book," said Thomas Love Peacock, a 19th century satirist, as quoted in this piece about the history of book covers in the Guardian. A cover can be seductive if the right hands dress it, but this is not the case at the moment. For numerous designers, designing book covers is a way of latching on to immortality. Why not tap these designers who are fed up of designing leaflets and making the client's logo smaller?
Now to the point. What initiated this post was Penguin's (the one abroad) boxed set of 70 pocketbooks. They are of remarkable design, each cover radically different from the last one. They not only appear to have not been created by the same hand, but they transcend nationality and eras. The different people credited behind each book is a reason for this: it ensures that the designer is free to concentrate on one design without worrying about a 'look' for the series. And yet they appear to be part of a set. One that made me laugh had a picture of a gruesome-looking breakfast which few would survive if they ventured toward in the first place: it was for George Orwell's In Defence of English Cooking. Zadie Smith's book was eye-catching too, as was Caligula.
There are possibilities all around, especially in a country as rich in chaos as this, where every day is a visual surprise. But unfortunately good design is not seen as an end in itself, and sometimes it is not seen at all. It needs more than skilled practicioners. It needs the people who matter to truly need it back.
Here is the Guardian essay again. It is worth a read. And below is the cover of the Caligula pocketbook, taken off Jai Arjun Singh's site.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
A clash of dreams
Yesterday James Blake stepped out of the US Open, a man defeated but proud, who plays sport as it should be played: with courage, tenacity, and a smile. A man who plays the sport to his own music, as champions do. One day a slam will be his. The parallels with English cricket are there. These are parallels that run with every sport and every sportsman. Tragedy, success, jubilation, despair; all ingredients of life and its reflection in sport.
England has seen hell. Beaten at one’s own game, the losses are doubly galling for a game’s masters are expected to not lose their grip. Now they have found themselves and taken us with them as they have made one realization after another, like an adolescent superhero slowly discovering what he is capable of. These realizations are perhaps nowhere else as dramatic as they are in fantasy and sport, which are close relations. The other superhero has discovered what old age can do and how quickly it sets in, and it is now left with the grit and sheer desire that are the residue of champions’ evaporated fantasies.
And when these five days pass, what will we feel? A sense of loss is inevitable for how many series have taught us more about how games can be played, about how so much that went before was wrong only because so much here has been right? Some of us will come out rejuvenated in what increasingly looks like a new era in this game. We are here now. Where will we be when this era ends?
In five days these Ashes will be over, forever recorded only on paper and film and memories that are inevitably exaggerated. All the noise, all the sound, all gone. These five days will be beautiful; they will be all about sport, all about life. Please don't let it rain.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
God at ungodly times
So you go to the window and there they are, the scums. And there's a police van behind them, driving slowly, providing protection to this lot. Not arresting them, but making sure nothing happens to these...these innocents. Delightful place, this city.
Monday, September 05, 2005
The Hyderabadi angle
I wonder if Mirza then, like the other two, is a 'touch' player; a player whose game is based more on instinct and harmony. Like David Gower as well. Which is why, when they're out of sorts, they don't merely look terrible, they appear to have walked into the wrong sport.
Sunday, September 04, 2005
Sehwag's feet and Benaud's brain
Benaud's admirable trait is rare, though. As cricket writers - actually, I'll stick to myself for this example - as a cricket writer, there are so many voices out there expressing so many opinions that you need to say something different, radically different, to be heard. And so you say it. And then there are so many voices after yours that your opinion is often lost in the melee. What's infinitely tougher is to keep thoughts to myself.
The treacherous guest
Early today, he cleared his throat after a long silence, making branches shake and trees bend backward and sending stray dogs whimpering, scampering for a roof. He groaned a low but loud groan, ending with a loud rumble, like explosions on the horizon. He promised violence but we couldn't be fooled. What happened five weeks ago could not really happen so soon again, could it? And yet we watched the sky, just in case. It rained lightly, every now and then, sometimes heavy but never for long, and always silently. All the more reason to watch his type, especially after what happened in July. All nice and good at first, he could turn treacherous in a blink. Tragic, really. We had a good thing going, this irritating guest and I. Still, he remains comforting in some way.
Saturday, September 03, 2005
Of course none of this will happen. That's why I like mondays. There's no pretence about what happens on mondays.
Living in fantasy
Amelie sleeps on a bed that encourages fantasy, reads at bedtime beside lamps that illuminate fantasy, and lives within colours that are fantasy. Her days are a flurry of wild incidents that have a colour of their own, and the colours and fantasies add up so her life is scarcely believable, like one illustrated by Quentin Blake. The soundtrack of this life is yellow, orange, red, blue, purple, and it coincides with moments of daring, mischief, calm and other things as she looks for love.
In a third movie, there is bare room full of promise. It has no floor and its walls are unpainted. There is a long window which looks out upon a quiet lane. People walk by, peering through the low window at the man watching them go by, a man imagining his everyday view. Books will line this wall, a sofa will sit by that one over there. A rug in the middle. Can I be Amelie? Or am I JM Barrie? He decides he is Barrie. Looking for love is one thing, finding a place to let the imagination run wild is another. So yes, he is JM Barrie. He will sit at a table by the window and build his own characters as they walk by. There are other rooms but they are not important. There will be a few beds, a dining table, a few sofas. But this space will have ideas floating within, so every surface, like the inside of an theater, should help bounce the waves until the room is filled with thoughts and loose ends echoing madly. Then, mid-flight, one idea will blossom and the rest will freeze, crash to the floor and shatter. He cannot see it happening in a colourful room. No, the colour will come from inside and paint the walls by itself. This way he always has a blank canvas. The soundtrack will be of a noisy keyboard and pencil on paper.
In another three months that room will be ready. I cannot wait.
Thursday, September 01, 2005
A pundit I like
As they've said, it makes sense to share the love. Leave the fruits and thalis behind. Eyeballs will do just fine.
Travels within travels
Often it is not the new, but the missing old that I see. The new will have enough time to settle in. It is the old that did not have enough time to reside in memory properly. The glowing torch of the kebab-waala by the NCPA. The Chinese place with its plastic chairs scattered opposite the theater. The watchmen whose names I never found out. A familiar parking spot taken by another car, though I had no use for it. Nothing to grieve about but it is a kind of loss. An irrational loss. How do you quantify that?
But it wasn't all sour. I finally watched Goodbye Lenin! at the NCPA with a friend. I feared it would sink, as well-regarded things annoyingly tend to do. But it got better and better and better until you could take no more because you were filled with so much pleasure at the protagonist's audacity that all that pleasure had to go somewhere and you wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh but you couldn't laugh because this was the NCPA and people don't laugh here. (Perhaps the crowd at the NCPA is matter for a different article.) The protagonist took his invalid mother on a journey of his choosing, fearing that reality would be too much for her to handle after she came out of a coma. So he obsessively created a world that pandered to her taste, showing that her beloved USSR still existed. How did he do it? Watch it sometime. It's worth it.
It was about manipulation, desperation, making a better life, but also very much about loss and finding the missing in a different form. The loss of a father. The dread at losing a mother. Concealing the loss of her adorable Soviet Union. I suppose we find what we look for; I found loss. Travels within travels again.