Thursday, January 16, 2014

Unwritten Rules for the Written Word

“Writers more interested in literature than the truth ensure that they never come out with either thingone reason that the word literature today sounds so fake, as if you were to insist on saying cuisine every time you meant food. Food, as in sustenance, is more like what we have in mind.” 
The editors n+1

A question has often crossed my mind that why these days we have so many Indians switching to writing in English and why there are so few books good books in Hindi and other Indian languages. My mother who is an avid reader of Hindi books often finds it difficult to find anything interesting in newly published books. Even when some new titles appear in library/ bookshops, they are difficult to read . Mostly due to their atrocious language which is a strange mix of English  words mixed with Hindi and often the slang of the two languages. The grammar is deliberately wrong and the themes are often repetitive. Even internet blogs are more lively and readable than the published books sometimes .

Today in a chance meeting with one Editor in Charge of Contemporary Indian Literature at India’s apex society of letters, I found answers to most of my doubts. My expectations from the person occupying such a respected post was of someone who’d love books and words making up those books. Someone who would be open to all expressions and styles and most of all someone who’d be learned enough to be open, unbiased and objective. What I found gave me ample proof of why even the most passionate Hindi lovers are today reading very few Hindi books. It also made to thank God that I am not a writer/ poet aspiring to be published or reviewed by these hollowed men.

I had always heard stories of writers who were rejected repeatedly by the publishers only to become world famous later on. One also hears of artists who were rated hopeless by critics  just before they shoot to fame and stardom.   Today I witnessed to my horror how a critic forces his own myopic view on a budding poet. Sitting in his cosy office , surrounded by the publications of his revered organisation, he vaguely looked at the crisp new  book and then shot a glance back to the newly published poet .  He read the biodata of the poet, determined within  seconds that she is in an outsider in the world of literature.( i.e.  not a full time writer cum academician  but  a successful professional  ) . He nodded his head disapprovingly and then the poet was told in harshest possible words that her choice of words, title of the book, themes of the poems and even the design of the cover is “incorrect”. The reason given was shocking – Today’s public does not want such words/ titles anymore. These were “in” some 40 years back. Who would read such (correct and pure) language anymore? These themes are also old. They do not sell anymore.

 Interesting part was that the learned man formed this opinion in just 4 minutes of looking at the book and without even reading one of the poems. When the poet protested that was this not suppose to be her expression....her words ....her language. She was told  that she has no chance of being established here if she thinks like this. Everything from the theme to the style should be carefully chosen based on the trend these days. He then arrogantly told the poor girl that she must read the journals and publications of his organisation to realise what kind of stuff is in demand these days and then try writing like that.  I was feeling bad for the poor writer till I found, to my horror , that the esteemed editor cum critic was criticising Tagore’s Geetanjali  as well on the same grounds saying that it won’t stand in today’s market . I was taken aback because this was not a profit minded publisher speaking but a critic associated with the society which is meant to “Promote and protect literature of Indian Languages”. Leave alone any encouragement to go different, there was a clear message- my way or highway.
When I asked this gentleman about writing for one’s own satisfaction ( Swantah Sukhaya)  without consideration of “market demand”; he almost got angry. “What a naive question? Who does that anyway? If anyone wants they can keep writing sitting quietly but our publications would never review such works. We have some standard to keep. People have expectations from us and we cannot publish about something which is not graded high on these established  benchmarks”.  So that is the new mantra- books as a consumer good. To be manufactured as per the demands of the customers . 

 Curious by his response, I decided to peep in the bookshop of this organisation, to browse through the latest trends in literature. I am now very certain to say that no Bacchchan or Ajneya , no Jaishakar Prasad or Sumitra Nandan Pant can today find place in these hallowed galleries of literature . They are now an exclusive domain of people who do not understand pure language, do not risk to go original in style or themes and worst of all, who are in the   ‘exclusive literature circuit’. The unwritten banner screams “Outsiders are not welcome” loud and clear. The experimentation with language is acceptable only if it is ‘approved kind of experimentation’ by the high priests of literature, all other variations are   ‘wrong’.  Good for these classic poets and writers that they become famous before such patrons of literature occupied these positions and framed their rules of good literature.
 Thankfully we are in an age where information seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire and it wafts across the electrified borders...thankfully it also goes beyond the domains of such Mullahs and Pundits of  literature. No wonder that many  young writers either move towards English as language of expression  , opt for more  entry barrier free mediums like internet publishing  or give up the hope of being read by people who’d have admired their words.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus Papam!

 In the age of twitter and  instant online polls , it sounds unreal that a crowd of thousands stand awe struck, braving the rain and the cold  , waiting patiently , looking at the rather ordinary chimney on an old  building to announce result of a vote by a group of about a 100 plus senior citizens  . But then that ordinary looking chimney is perhaps the most famous chimney of the world. Atop the Sistine chapel , this chimney is what will announce to the world that a new successor of Saint Peter and the Bishop of Rome , the pope , has  been elected . This morning , there were hundreds of TV cameras zooming to this chimney and people were gathered at 6 am to watch the history being made . It’s not only media , the clergy or the people of Rome who are glued to this Papal conclave with great excitement . One finds many  ordinary people from all over the world gathered to witness this big ticket entertainment  here in Rome .

But then , there is a limit to the patience of the world which enthusiastically awaits the  formal traditional  announcement of Habemus Papam (We have a Pope). History tells us that when the conclave took too long to decide, it took bit more than divine intervention to hurry them up. In 1268, a papal conclave began that lasted nearly three years — 33 months to be precise . Pope Gregory X was elected pope, but not before residents of Viterbo, north of Rome, tore the roof off the building where the cardinals were staying and restricted their meals to bread and water to make them conclude . Hoping to avoid a repeat, Gregory decreed in 1274 that cardinals would only get one meal a day if the conclave stretched beyond three days, and served bread, water and wine if it went beyond eight. While the meals served these days at the Vatican's hotel are by no means gourmet, the cardinals won't go hungry — no matter how long they take picking a pope. Statistics however suggests that it will be around 3 days  before we see the white smoke from the chimney .

Ever since the last Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the media started flocking the city of Rome and since yesterday , it’s like a football match about to begin. Everything related to Vatican stir up a lot of interest from world media. The pope’s red Prada shoes or the secrets of Vatican archives , problems of the Vatican banks and of course the views of the Vatican on every subject possible  . Dozens of movies , novels and documentaries have explored all kinds of happenings and conspiracy theories related to the Vatican . The Vatican and the church do not seem to mind the talk . I have a feeling that they even relish the bad publicity and the angry debates about their way of functioning. But then that is also perhaps a Papal tradition. The long line of popes over the centuries has perhaps the most number of juicy stories and scandals.  Even the official tour guides of Vatican will not fumble while mentioning the atrocities of some medieval popes or the flamboyant and ostentatious  life styles of some others. They will gleefully point out the portraits of  Pope’s mistresses and illegitimate children decorating their historical buildings. There are no secrets about burning people at stake for their views or the washing of worldly sins in lieu of gold by some of the earthly representatives of God many centuries back . It is , however, very curious  that though there is so much information about the ways of Vatican in public domain , the Vatican  still remains a mystery .  In fact even in Rome, not many know about the happenings behind those medieval walls of the world’s smallest sovereign nation.  I find it fascinating how easily they accepted that perhaps mystery is also their connect to the generation who reads Dan Brown and JK Rowlings .  There is no violent protest, no fatwa for  boycott  and of course they started a new guided tour after the Dan Brown book (Angels and Demons) . That is very very papal way of handling the bad publicity .
But ancient or modern, political or religious - elections are finally elections ! No wonder that the city is buzzing with the names of runners and the riders. The regions, languages spoken and even the colour of skin may play a role. There will be canvassing and discussions, prayers and meetings all around. The qualities that get a person elected are not always the best virtues in him but the vices of the others. In all probability with the 2/3rd vote needed it will be compromise candidate.  In fact I read in a blog that it will actually have all the ingredients of the popular reality TV show Big brother. A bunch of oddballs locked in a big room incommunicado with the world and the rest of us watching obsessively.   So the best man may not always win the race  but at the end of the day,  it will be as they say ,  the Winner takes it all !
            St. Peters Square is a great place to hang around anytime of the day, even on a normal day .  It’s a place of a fantastic mix of art and faith, legends and history .  Who lives inside the apostolic palace, does not matter much to an ordinary person like me.  Neither does it interest me much what are the views of this old man or his advisors. And yet, call it by any name – obsession, excitement or mere lack of work … is very interesting to be around the majestic Basilica of St Peters these days and watching the papal conclave creating yet another smoky chapter of Church history .

Sunday, March 10, 2013

For here lies Juliet ....

“Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!

For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.”
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
Falling in love with characters in the books or movies is nothing new for many of us . There is also nothing unusual in worshipping a character in story much more than real like heroes (and heroines) . There is   something very basic about tragic love stories that attract people across the world. Come to think of it , tragic tales of couples belonging to  feuding families is one of the pet themes of romances in all languages of the world . Perhaps that is why they say, It's Love that makes the world go round . You can’t help realizing the depth of this thought when you are in the city of Verona. 
The Famous Balcony of Juliet 
 A beautiful, historical city of Italy, Verona, has many claims to fame. But of course, top of the list is the immortal tale of Romeo and Juliet. The city attracts hundreds of tourists every day just to visit the so called balcony of Juliet and the supposed tomb of Juliet .  So solid is this association of the tale with this city that the city claims to be la città dell'amore- the city of love, even in its not so touristy affairs. The historical authenticity of these claims ( though largely immaterial for the believers  ) is  however, not  as solid . But then, that is the power of written word. Most of us know about these characters from Shakespeare’s version where the scene is set in the fair city of Verona . Who cares that it was perhaps Siena and not Verona where the original story was set in the  Italian version which inspired Shakespeare’s tale .

Verona is a beautiful town, with abundance of art and natural beauty . The city , remembers its historical past  with a mixed emotion . During World war II , many of its Churches received a bad fate . A lot of art was destroyed. The city fall into the hands of the French and in many places , one finds remembrance of those- not so happy days . With bombing and bans on church, destruction of life and faith  in recent past – it seems incredulous that  the city today relates more with a legendary ( yet tragic) love tale of star crossed lovers than any other  bare fact  of life . Its love and music that provide lifeblood to the city . The former comes from the tale of Romeo and Juliet and the latter from a great tradition of Opera and jazz fests of the town. One can almost feel the romantic heart of the city in many not so romantic ways. The way corner of the city lanes celebrate the verse of the Bard  and even the road leading to Juliet’s Tomb named after the English poet who made her immortal and famous across the world . No wonder Juliet still lives in her ‘Casa’ at Verona and if you choose to believe she would even talk to you through letters and e-mails .
 Come to think of it , where else the famous couple would live when Romeo himself famously proclaimed:
“There is no world without Verona walls
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence “banishèd” is banished from the world,
And world’s exile is death.”

In the beginning ,it may sound very tourist like propaganda and even silly to many of us  but its only when you see old couples  holding hands in the lines  like teenagers to pose at Juliet’s balcony or to put a lock on the metal door , marking their love that you realize the power of this celebrated emotion . Still not convinced about the universal appeal of this emotion ? Just go to Juliet’s tomb and you will find a statue of Chinese duo  Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, a love  story much similar to that of Romeo and Juliet . 

True or false, historical fact or a poet’s imagination, Verona celebrates its Juliet  love every single day .  The story lives inside  the hearts of hundreds of its fans  and after all , as the poet himself said –
“For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Walking in the Water Painting

“ Mum, It’s like walking in a huge life size water painting”, I overheard the teenager speaking over phone. For a moment I just wowed the thought. It was like giving words to my own feelings  . Yes , that is exactly what Rome is .  A huge painting where you are the child in the window on the left hand corner looking out at perhaps nowhere . You do not count for the overall beauty of the painting but just the thought that you are also there in it- is exciting .
This time , it is even more fun. May be the excitement of discovery is not there as it was the first time but then there is this soothing familiarity with the place which makes it even more special . Every morning I marvel at the colour of the river water, the magic flowing at the piazzas and the amazing energy in the messy city scene. It’s like a child watching ripples in the  water for the first time . Interestingly, it is also like a householder looking at his old house with fondness and affection. I try counting the shades of life and fail everyday .

 The other day walking back from Vatican , I thought about the art and the faith . How one inspires  the other and how they complement and contradict each other simultaneously . It was like finding  an ancient church celebrating the Galileo and his views about Sun and earth . It’s also like finding a statue of a Dominican monk burned at stake for his theory of mathematics.  The best part perhaps is away from the flickering digicams and the souvenir shops. It’s the beauty hidden in the small lanes and cobbled pathways . You turn a corner and may be you find the most amazing church , you peep through a keyhole and may be it gives you the most perfect view of St Peters .

 So I hunt for such turns and keyholes, sideways and the tiny little door on the other side . They keep on appearing and finding me. So ,the mysterical water painting keep on changing its colours and like an amazed child I watch in awe and admiration .
Its such a unique blend of modern and ancient that you cannot admire one without mentioning the other. Sometimes it looks ironical, even funny.  Imagine the modern real time media , chasing the ancient tradition of choosing the successor of St Peters- the pope . It is a place where modern SUVs zoom through the ancient roads and where the  flamboyant politicians and their girlfriends share headlines with the 85 year old pope resigning from his post. But then one realizes that this is exactly the texture of this fascinating city .  You keep digging in and you keep finding treasures – layer after layer. 

Quo Vadis ?

Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis, Rome

 Its again many months of non-blogging. Well, there was no dearth of things to write about  nor words to spin the yarn but something holds me back. Partly the busy nothings of my mundane life and partly the thought that I am not to write about the work I am engaged in office. The current work assignment, which took majority of my time last year , was so damn interesting that the temptation to write about it was very high. Looking back, these were some interesting months I lived. I visited fascinating places and met extraordinary people. Did some silly things , tried to come out a winner and all in all, it was  a good existence  and loads of  happy memories. May be some day I will write about it too. But look at me now, I was in Rome last year then touched Banaras in between and am back to Rome again. Its like a circular bus touching all ancient cities .
I knew it even then. It had to be this way.  We were not done last time. Me and Rome . Rome left me desiring for more – more of Rome, I mean . So I am back. Back to my favorite piazzas, my favorite walks and my favorite city.  All this was going in my mind when I climbed the bus for catacombs on via Appia Antica ( the ancient Appian way ) . 

Appian Way 

There was no fixed program and it was a bright  Sunday morning .  As  expected ,  I got down at the  wrong stop. Good that happened , for it made me walks miles on the  picturesque ancient highway . It was then that I noticed “Quo Vadis?”.  First on a pizzeria and then the Church nearby . It was so ironical. As if the question was addressed to me.
Quo-Vadis? (Where are you going?)- a question that  can hardly ever have one perfect answer. Well, the Church was fine but the story was fantastic. The resurrected savior appearing to give courage to an old man to be a martyr  and later on Saint . I am not a big fan of St Peter at all. He sounds so unsteady in his faith , so terribly wrong in his choices and so timid mostly  that he needed divine interventions at many points in his life  . But then he rose to the occasion and become the rock on which the Church was built. May be it was all this that made him the connect between the God and the world. He became the saint , because he returned. He returned knowing  that he will be crucified . But still he  changed his mind and he returned .

So walking the serene ancient Appian road, admiring the sun and the grass, I thought about journey of life and I thought about the return. The latter because the church (Church of Domine Quo Vadis ) is in fact located just in front of the sacred campus dedicated to Rediculus, the Roman God of the Return. So It was on this 2000 year old road that I decided to return to my blog again ( among many other things )  and to tell where am I going , both in a worldly way and in a metaphorical one .

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Ganga from Assi Ghat @5.30AM

 Yes, that is the realization at the end of the journey- the more things change, the more they remain the same. No amount of turbulence all around can change the basics. It’s so true of people and also for places. At least for places, which have seen a lot of changes over the centuries. No wonder it applied to the oldest living city of the world.

Looking back, I wonder why I was expecting that it will change at all. A city which continues to be what it is for centuries-unaware of people who come here, people who patronize it, who destroy it …people who love it and hate it for almost similar reasons. Why was I expecting, it might have changed in last 15-20 years? May be because even then, the squalor and garbage, the broken roads and unruly traffic made me uneasy. I last visited Varanasi as a schoolgirl.  I loved the city, its old charming ways – its narrow lanes, its traditional eateries and of course the river. Back then, I found the nearby Buddhist pilgrimage Sarnath straight out of my history books. It was in Sarnath that I first experienced how powerful would have been the faith preached by Buddha that it broke the centuries old customs of Hinduism in the 6th century BC. In Sarnath, during my last visit, I was amazed to see the spread of Buddha’s dhamma across the world and how it ties the citizens of different countries beyond language and politics. I was also very envious of the students of BHU, the sprawling university campus and the unmatched courses on offer.  

            Then in last 20 years I changed. My gaze changed as well. Now when I looked at the dirty lanes of Banaras, I thought of lanes in historical part of the Rome and compared the two. The two eternal cities – which continued in all times of History, so similar in this aspect and so contrasting in all others. While in Rome there was a constant awareness of the historical context of the place, here it was blissful ignorance. Even the government notice boards and pamphlets do not speak the facts – but merely state the folklore, the “belief” associated with the place. While in Rome even the smallest and most ordinary of churches were very clean, in Banaras even the holiest of all temple, the Kashi Vishwanath temple needed some real faith to ignore the stench and dirt around it. Though I am not a religious person as such, I did not even feel moved at the sight of the temples. But then, temples were in any case not the most favourite sight in the city for me.

            The early morning boat ride was the best remembered part in my memories for Banaras. So we went again for it. The sky was full of monsoon clouds and the river was swelling with flood water from Nepal. The ghats, very uncharacteristically were almost barren. The life of the city, however, slowly started to appear. Priests and foreign tourists, local people and devotees from outside, cows and stray dogs, flower sellers and boatmen…slowly they all took their places on the Ghats. It was from the ghats that we saw the swamp of foreign tourist gathered with their cameras at Manikarnika Ghat to see the cremation as per Hindu rites.  For my mind, it was a very disturbing fact that death too can be a tourist sight! But apparently in the age of reality TV, all emotions attract our curiosity- even the most tragic ones. We wondered about the centuries of history appearing in the names of the ghats and also the naïve ignorance of people. There is something special about the place – something very real and important, but somehow, I had lost the innocent eyes of a child to admire that.
On the Ghats of Ganga

Ramnagar fort and the mysterious fort of Chunar, both places have definitely lost their grandeur and charm. Badly encroached and mindlessly maintained by insensitive government organizations, they no longer remind one about the days gone by. The stories of prince and princesses, spies and romance as narrated by Devaki Nandan Khatri in his ‘Chandrakanta’ seem very remote to the present structures.
Chunar Fort

Is it simply our ignorance about our history or our disinterest in anything beyond basic needs that can make people use a beautifully located British cemetery as a garbage dump?  Even the royal carriages of King of Kashi, used for the annual Ramlila look so ill kept and unimpressive. All along the overpowering thought was about the people visiting the place from other countries. Would they be able to sail through the complicated and tricky madness of the city to find some greater meaning in all this? I am somewhat doubtful of that!

Sarnath, unlike Banaras was clean and serene.  Through very deficient in terms of facilities and infrastructure, at least the place looked holy and inviting. It was, in fact, in Sarnath that I realized the answer to my disquiet about Banaras. It was in fact foolish of me to think that anything will change in the eternal city. Even with the new swanky shopping malls selling McDonalds burgers and western-style bakeries, the city will remain the same. It may be the world’s most un-hygienic holy place but it is also one of the most sought after. The city perhaps breaths with faith and not the polluted air. One can never judge this place at a material level. As a philosophical capital of India, the only way one can see and appreciate Varanasi is philosophically. Probably the groups of Sri Lankan and Thai tourists, with folded hands and whisper-like chants of mantras, got this from the beginning. And that is why perhaps, near the dilapidated Ramnagar fort and the ill maintained Chunar fort, the dirty, crowded ghats and just behind the snakelike lanes, with all the pollution and garbage, quiet flows the Ganges.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tasting 'il dolce far niente' in Rome ...

Even before I learnt my first lesson of Italian language or ate my first slice of Pizza , I knew few things about Rome . I mean other than the history and art stuff. These were images that came from the movies and books mostly . To sum up in three words the image of the city was Vespas- Vatican-Vino . Now several weeks old in this city I still make and revise my opinion about this place every day. It remains a puzzle and enigma for which solutions seems to be just on the tip of my tongue . It amazes me to no end how a city can be so much and much more . Every day I discover some or the other new aspects of the city which entirely changes the equation. But then there are few things you can’t miss when in Rome .

 Rome might have patronized world acclaimed great artists and musicians, painters and singers but there are two arts which most ordinary people practice to excellence- famous La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), and also Il dolce far niente ("Sweet Doing Nothing" or "Sweet Idleness"). The latter in fact is very curious. It’s not being lazy or indifferent . It means letting your senses be the guide, getting lost, immersing in the place and just watching it live and display, also being impressed by how much beauty can be created by so many non-planned aspects crammed and layered through the millennia.

To a Roman, to see and to be seen, to experience life to the fullest, to love and to be loved, are the very essence of living —and the Eternal City provides an enchanting venue in which to “do it all.” A distinctive feature of Rome in fact is that it throbs with life ticking every second with an enjoyable spirit of enthusiasm, innocence, intuition, improvisation and leisure. The beauty is that they have designed the entire city that way or actually the city has developed over many centuries like that . The ruins , the monuments and history are just the first few reasons to fall in love with this city ...and they are not even the best ones.

There are such crazy facts about Italy that speak for itself .I read in a travel magazine that in a country of approximately 58 million they have more than 63 million phones . An average italian eats 26 Kg bread per year but gulps down 26 gallons of wine per annum. While the Italian economy is at its lowest ebb, Trevi fountain still makes 3000 euros every day in coins. A crazy town where every third building is a church and every fourth is a pizzeria . But like any other great city- Rome grows on you. You love it despite its pickpocketers, its mindless drivers and its inefficiencies . City can be best described as the spaghetti twirled around a fork. It is built up on contradictions. It tastes best because its slippery . In this town, you get the best designer brands as well as their Chinese imitations side by side - one in showrooms other on the pavements . You see a confluence of a buzzing metropolis and a medieval town at almost every turn . You enter a non descript kind of lane and find yourself facing a most amazing church or palace. A very holy and serene church can have a most morbid crypt with sculptures made up of bones and sculls.

The city makes you feel like a greedy child in a candy store. You want to see every church, appreciate every painting, savour all colours and walk every street . But after you have a stomach fill of sights and smells.....all you can do is to sit down in a cafe and watch the town go by. The town reveals its new colours only then. Its only when you get over that compulsive sightseeing that you actually see the beauty of the Rome . The feeling is beyond words, much like the mix of gelati you learn to savour . It was only when I reached this stage that I realized the very sensible il dolce far niente . Its only then I noticed the beautiful white seagulls encircling all monuments and churches of Rome. It appears as if the angels have taken this form to savour the beauty of this place day in and out. Its only then I noticed how beautiful , how kind and how emotional people are .

They love and love the display of love . They can't talk without a very characteristic movement of hands, they can't step out of house without looking stylish enough to walk the ramp and they cannot help looking like Greek gods and goddesses despite their very modern dressing. And only when I was just about to think that I am the first one noticing all this, I read somewhere that "Rome will reward you as no other city can, by making you feel as all her visitors have for over two thousand years: that you are the first person to really understand and appreciate her, the only one truly worthy of her infinite charms."

This morning when I sat down near River Tiber looking at the vatican bridge on one side and a  streetful of tourists on the other ,  I realised that visitors love Rome precisely because it can do this to them, especially in a global era in which a hectic working pace makes us all forget the taste of life, and its facets. The city gives you an assurance that it will remain here for your next visit and the coin you threw in the fountain guarantees that there will be a next time.