Category Archives: Books

Reviews and general musings on books I have read

That embarrassing question

My search for him/her at the Times Literature Fest at Bandra ended soon. It was during a session on humour that the hand went up. After being given the mike, the male asked a panel comprising writer Upamanyu Chatterjee (of English August fame) and standup comic Radhika Vaz, “Was humour invented or discovered?” I was delighted before the familiar embarrassment set in and stomped all over the delight.

This may make me come across a bit self-righteous or even mean, but I am convinced that the quality of several questions we ask at sessions, especially sessions discussing politics and books, can improve manifold. Whenever a session comes to an end and the host ‘throws open the debate’, I have an uneasy feeling. I am almost certain it is going to be a waste of time. Mostly inertia and some hope get the better of me and I stay back to be red-faced one more time.

I am afraid of the kind of questions that will come forward. I am afraid about the long commentaries that people will start giving without coming to the question once the mike is in their hands. At times the commentary ends without a question. With a limited time span of a session, I fail to understand how these guys do not fathom that they are wasting people’s time. Do they not get that the others are not there to appreciate their opinions. That we all have our set of opinions and share it with those who are interested.

For reasons I cannot understand, I am not able to laugh at the lame questions that come forth so often. (Even if I am laughing on the outside I am flush with embarrassment within) In some sense there is this collective feeling of disappointing the guests as a member of the audience that gets to me I think. Ever so often, I am even embarrassed to look at the person posing the question. I just wish I could vanish into thin air. And then I look at the guests and the host trying to make sense out of question or give it some dignity and feel worse.

There are however those hosts/guests who do not let the podium come in the way of some good old deadpan wit. I remember a few years back, at the times lit fest again, the irreverent Vinod Mehta was present during a session about journalism. During the question answer round, this boy who had been jumping all along to ask a question, finally spewed this into the mike, “It is said the pen is mightier than the sword. Is it true?” Mehta being himself looked at boy and said, “Meet me at the bar later. I’ll answer you there. Next question”

Worse than the silly questions is that stage when another person in the audience will object or join in the original lame question and soon it becomes a free for all. At times when the guest cannot hold his/her own, they too are drawn into this banal discussion, miles away from what was originally meant to be discussed. This is so especially true of sessions to do with politics. Every person, especially the older lot, is convinced that they have the answer to all the questions faced by the nation. Oh if only he/she could be made the PM of India .

So coming back to today, I was looking out for that such a question to be reassured about my opinion on quality of our questions when the male sprung up with the invention/discovery conundrum. Want to know what Upamanyu Chatterjee answered? He answered with a straight face “Humour was discovered by Edison in 1942” to a thunderous applause.

‘The delight by the end of the lane’

I do not read fantasy fiction. I have been cocky (or foolish) enough to not read any of the Harry Potters, Lord of the rings, and their ilk. While for some this is blasphemous, it has never mattered to me.

What finally got me to that genre was none of these behemoths but a humble little 230 odd paged book: ‘The Ocean at the end of the lane’ by the imaginative and honest Neil Gaiman. I was introduced to Gaiman when I happened to come across his commencement address made at University of the Arts and was blown away by what he had to say. (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikAb-NYkseI)

Source: schmoop.com

Source: schmoop.com

I thought a guy with such splendid insights into life has to be a good writer. This followed by a friend praising him and coming across some (awesome) quotes by him on social media and I knew I had to read him. I ordered Ocean online without realizing it was a genre that I had resisted with gumption as far.

The first few pages of the book took me back to ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night time’ by Mark Haddon, a book I relished. I still remember the sheer delight it was to see the world through the head of a 15-year-old child, the narrator – a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties – employed by Haddon. The narrative voice, the creative observations and the little imaginative quirks of children (especially where his day would be determined on the basis of the cars he saw on his way to school) had turned me into an instant Haddon convert

I met that child again after so many years. I met him in Ocean and I realized that I had been missing him. And here again, there were those little gems strewn across the pages (although with less consistency than Haddon) that makes one hate all adults. The beauty of these books is that you think of yourself being on the side of the child than an adult. Age is immaterial. We all have forsaken the child in us at some stage. Jolted suddenly into adulthood the child relegated somewhere deep within ourselves. The child resurfaces when it sees itself in books like these.

The point is better illustrated in the book when at one point Lettie Hemstock tells the seven-year-old narrator that there are no grown-ups in the world, he wonders: “We sat there side by side on the old wooden bench not saying anything. I thought about adults. I wondered if that was true. That they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies , like children books hidden in the middle of dull long books. The kind with no pictures or conversations.”

I remember there were times while reading when I was scared. I was scared reading a book after a long, long time. I really cannot put my finger on what it is that makes some writers more believable than the others. But I know its effect. It is almost like after a few pages, you are their mercy. And they use their words to then play with your head. Their charms are irresistible, their fears, terrifying.

Another thing I love about the book is that it a short book with short sentences. I could finally understand why people keep telling me to write shorter, crisper sentences. The prose is as taut as a tightrope. And as with all good writing, the number of places you traverse in the scare number of words the book uses borders on the incredible.

Apart from all this, the book has the little things that go into making a good book. It has its little innocuous lines: ‘Books are safer than people anyway’ to ‘I cried until I was all cried out’. It has its words of wisdom, ‘I do not miss childhood but I do miss the way I took pleasure in small things even as greater things crumbled.’

And then finally it has beauty, ‘Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, perhaps thousands; it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences…’