Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Garden of Auden

My life is largely sustained by the belief that I shall create literature someday; and this belief, I believe, largely stems from the fact that I never studied English literature. Inferiority complex, you see. Shakespeare is completely lost on me, so is Eliot. I find it impossible to wade through Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, and I had never heard of W.H. Auden till about eight years ago when a Time magazine article explained his greatness.

The same Time issue toasted James Joyce as the greatest writer or the 20th century, and that's when I bought Dubliners, a book of his short stories. But trust me, I shall never buy Ulysses no matter how rich I feel. I would rather have people write a thesis on Ganga Mail 50 years from now than spend 50 days trying to read a book that literature students are still dissecting to earn their doctorates.

But a few years ago, from the Crossword in Delhi's South Extension, I did buy a slim collection of Auden: Rs 357 for a book that barely ran into 50 pages. I bought it because I felt drawn towards the picture of Auden Time had carried in the issue I mentioned (I did not know then that he was a homesexual): a man with a wrinkled and rugged face holding a cigarette. I had wanted to look like that when I was much older. Anyway, I went through his poems and was very impressed -- doesn't matter if I don't remember any of them.

Auden caught my attention once again last month, when the London Times, to mark his centenary year, republished his views on writing. An extract:

"A girl whose boyfriend starts writing her love poems should be on her guard. Perhaps he really does love her, but one thing is certain: while he was writing his poems he was not thinking of her but of his own feelings of her and that is suspicious."

But isn't that how the world is? We hope and pray that our parents and siblings and spouses are fit and healthy, not just because we want them to be fit and healthy, but mainly because we worry about the agony we will go through if they are not. It's a selfish world. The girl should be grateful that the boyfriend has at least a feel for her. His feeling is the measurement of love. If he is completely consumed by her, there would be no feeling. There would be no poetry. There would be no Auden. There would be no literature.

Perhaps that's what Auden also meant, and perhaps that is why I so admire him, even though I have hardly read him. But what I admire about him most is his punctuality. As he said of himself, as quoted by London's Spectator:

So obsessive a ritualist

a pleasant surprise

makes him cross.

Without a watch

he would never know when

to feel hungry or horny.

It would really help if I could schedule things like horniness.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

My Five Favourite Bloggers

Gaurav has listed me among his five favourite desi bloggers -- a great honour indeed, considering that Technorati doesn't rank me even in the first 100,000 (at one point, though, my position was 49,562). But he has also tagged me, which means I have to list my five most favourite bloggers.

Now that's a difficult task, considering I barely spend time on my own blog these days, leave alone read others. But I do read, once in a while, something here and something there. Mostly I stick to reading people I know: getting to know them better is any day more worthwhile than trying to peep into the mind of a stranger. Occasionally, however, a stranger does grab your attention, but soon the stranger joins the list of people you know. So you are back to reading the people you know.

But there are blogs I would never want to read, such as the news and views ones. Perhaps as a professional journalist, I don't feel compelled to read a blogger's take on news and events. I don't know if such blogger's are popular because they are prolific, or because they are prolific that they are popular; but what I know is that it is easy to be prolific when you sit in front of the computer, every morning, with the day's papers and start nitpicking or sermonising. It is also easy to be prolific when you write Guess-what-happened-to-me-last-night kind of stuff.

It is, however, not easy to record the impact that the simplest of things make on your mind. For that, you need to have a mind that is sensitive. And blogs that show such sensitivity turn me on. During my year-and-a-half of blogging, I have come across many such blogs. The owners of some of them escape my memory, while the rest figure on my friend's list. Atul Sabnis, Reshma, Arundhati, Prerona, Paresh, Deepa... I read them whenever I can. Shankari's verse makes me jealous. Then there is Kornershopgirl, who was born to be a writer but became an obgyn. And the others. It would be unfair if I chose my favourite five from among them, because they are 'friends' and equally dear to me. I could, however, choose from among the people who don't figure in my list but whose blogs I relish:

1. Gauravonomics. That's Gaurav's blog. No, I am not really returning him the favour, even though such a gesture is naturally in order. If you read him, you'll know why he is a favourite. He writes about the same emotions as I, albeit with greater elegance and flair. Reading him gives me a feel as if we were two friends in a previous birth, working in a small town in a very boring office and who, whenever they went to the city on assignments, would indulge in sins with a gusto -- from drinking in roadside dhabas to whore-hunting in seedy streets. What do you call that: deja vu?

2. Maanga. That's Nilu's blog. His is the only blog whose comment box is as interesting as the post itself. Reason being he blogs with a pin, which he pokes at the bottom of everyone who reads him -- and everyone means everyone. There are people who love him, and who love to hate him, while I watch the fun sitting on the fence. When he is not puking on others, he is writing about economics and erotica. He excels in writing the latter, trust me.

3. Starryeyedwanderer. She is someone I do not know, but I wish I did. I am partial to anyone clining to their twenties, because that was my principal occupation a few years ago. Now I cling to the 30's. Anyway, the sensitivity she displays is as if she has been around for many more decades, and how she articulates that!: Raindrops glitter on my window pane. Like diamonds. And I wonder who's crying this time. Another post moans the lack of 'smart men', and men who consider themselves smart should read that, though let me warn you: she is smarter.

4. Wickedly Yours. That's Anna's blog. I have known Anna for a short while, professionally, and I know she is a bright kid. Her posts, obviously, are not written in a deliberate style for people to read and appreciate: and that is what I like. They are more of a raw diary, recording to angst of someone who has just stepped out of her teens.

5. Compulsive Confessor. I happened to read her because her URL has been forwarded to me, time to time, by various people. Perhaps because the stuff she writes is bound to tickle the Indian male reader, myself included now. But that does not take away from the robustness of her prose. She is very, very good. Makes you think -- if you want to think, that is.

Gaurav, you owe me a drink now.

Confessions Of A 'Novelist'

Ten years ago, inspired by Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, I began writing a novel – my first. The character, obviously, was based on me – not loosely, but fully. I named him Shankar. The story begins with Shankar, who has just shifted to a new house, waking up to the sound of the alarm clock. He gropes for the clock in the early-morning darkness and only then it hits him that he is in a new place.

The opening scene ran up to about 1000 words or so. I rewrote it about a dozen times, and showed it to friends, who were all very polite in their feedback. A couple of them who wanted to appear well meaning suggested a few changes. I carried them out. What next?

I was clueless. It is easy to wake up a sleeping person, but once the person is up, the real story begins. Ok, I had a rough story in mind. But how to go about it? I began to look for inspiration. I bought John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, which was the byproduct of his writing of East of Eden. On the margin of every page of East of Eden’s manuscript, he wrote a letter to his publisher Pascal Covici about the progress of his day’s work. The exercise helped him clear writer’s block as he went along. So I too drew vertical lines on the pages of my diary: on the left were letters written to myself, and on the right the story of Shankar. Subsequently I also bought the voluminous East of Eden. But soon after I read an article in the London Times which quoted some famous writer – I can’t recall the name – as calling Steinbeck a “third-rate novelist with tenth-rate philosophy”. I junked the two books. Shankar’s future continued to hang in balance.

I turned to Hemingway for inspiration. A Moveable Feast begins with his account of a cafĂ© in Paris, where he sitting and working on Up in Michigan, which was celebrated as one of his most famous short stories. His words: “… in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing…” While he is still writing, a pretty woman walks in to sit on a nearby table. About her: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for… You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.”

I spent many afternoons in the Delhi Press Club, drinking rum while others drank vodka with plenty of ice. No one disturbed me, because no one had ever seen anyone so engrossed in a place where you are supposed to drink and laugh and discuss the state of the nation. I wrote a lot about Shankar’s childhood, as in my childhood; but there was nothing concrete to take the story forward from the point Shankar had been woken up by the alarm clock. The story had a strong past and a strong future, but no present. The present was sitting and drinking in the Press Club.

I decided to turn to Graham Greene. The protagonist of his The End of an Affair, Maurice Bendrix, was a disciplined lot: “Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week… When I was young not even a love affair would alter my schedule. A love affair had to begin after lunch, and however late I might be in getting to bed – so long as I slept in my own bed – I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it.”

But those days, love affairs mattered a lot for me while the bed didn’t. As a result, my alter ago could never get out of his bed. Ten years have passed, and now it hardly matters. But I do look for a place to hide whenever a friend from those days asks: “Has your Shankar woken up yet?”

Thursday, April 05, 2007


As kids when we learn grammar, and when the English teacher tries to explain abstract noun, the first example that he or she usually hands out is 'love'. Something that is there, but still not there. You can't touch it or see it, but you live it, live on it and, even, live off it: Sahir and Majrooh and Gulzar would have remained anonymous if not for love.

But the question that torments me is: how honest is love? Wish there was a loveometre to measure the honesty and intensity of the emotion when someone said "I love you".

I have said "I love you" hundreds of times because that seemed to be the most appropriate thing to say. Either as habit or as part of natural progression of a long-drawn conversation (running into days or weeks) with a woman. Not saying that would have made the situation awkward. After all, only in paid sex can you dispense with those three words.

I have said "I love you" dozens of times because I really felt like saying it -- sex or no sex. There are people you grow with and suddenly, one fine morning, you realise they have become part of your habit. In effect a part of you. If what you feel for them can be called love, then the declaration has 80 percent honesty. Not 100 percent, because there are likely to be other people you love the same way.

I have said "I love you" to my girlfriends because that's the done thing. Not saying those words at appropriate moments would have meant serious trouble. That holds true for my saying "I love you" to my wife. Now wait a moment. I really, really love my wife, and I am not saying this to save my ass in case she reads this. And she loves me too.

I have, however, never felt "I love you" gushing up my chest. It happens quite effortlessly in movies, but in real life, I guess it would take a great deal of effort to be in a situation where you could feel love throbbing like your heart. Such as taking the plane to Brazil. Suddenly the plane hits a tree and you find yourself thrown out into the Amazon forests. In the forest you spend months among animals and tribals whose language you obviously don't follow. And then one day, a man walks into the hut you are living in. He looks just like you and he speaks Hindi! What is the emotion that will overcome you? If you can describe that emotion, then you will know what it means to say "I love you" with 100 percent honesty.