Sunday, December 30, 2007

new beginnings

Buoyed by the optimism of January, the new year always feels like a crisp, blank page I can write anything on. Here's wishing all of you a fantastic 2008. I hope the optimism lasts all through the year.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas everyone!

He pushes his feet in to the scuffed black boots before styling his beard with Brylcreem. Brylcreem. Like she couldn’t have been more original this year. He couldn’t wait for tomorrow when he could shave the damn thing off. Tomorrow. It seemed like such a long way off. All those houses, all those gifts, all those chimneys to get down. And those reindeer, farting in his face and pretending like they had no control. The ministry had rejected his application for a car. Again. Environmentally unfriendly they said. As though all that methane was good for the planet. Sure, there were days he thought of quitting but the perks were good. 364 days a year off. Free milk and cookies on the one day he had to work. Some would even say he was famous, not in a Paris Hilton kind of way, but still. You shouldn’t complain so much he tells himself as he settles down in the sleigh. Life could be worse. You could be the Easter Bunny.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"I wouldn't even piss on this"

It was one of Mohammed's favourite things to say when creatives showed him work that was below par. That, and 'BOLLOCKS'.

I remember the day I joined Enterprise Nexus. I was 21, had spent a year in advertising and had never heard of the man. My CD at the time couldn't believe it. 'You haven't heard of Mohammed Khan? Have you had your head in the sand all these years?' he asked incredulously.

But in a way, not knowing anything about him made my life easier. I wasn't scared of Mohammed, I never got nervous about showing work to him and I didn't tremble in my seat whenever he walked by. I hadn't heard the stories about how he reduced senior, award winning art directors to tears or how he once tore a layout and scattered the shreds of paper from the second floor landing to the level below. I still don't know what truth there is to these stories, perhaps no one other than Mohammed does.

I learned a lot about MK in the two years I spent at Enterprise. That to receive praise from him was like nothing else. (He once blew kisses at me over a layout and called me a genius. Bliss) That to have him sigh in disappointment over your work was much worse than to have him yell at you. That he could be avuncular, flirtatious, witty and scornful all in the span of half and hour. That you could spend all week painstakingly writing headlines for a campaign but he could whip his pen out and write 4 headlines in 5 minutes that you could spend a lifetime trying to craft and not come close to. That writers must use proper pens and write on beautiful paper. That poor grammar and typos showed that one didn't care about their work and there was nothing worse than that.

They weren't all good moments. I have to admit there were times when I hated him. When it was 3am on a Saturday and I was at work writing lines while I imagined him tucked in bed sleeping soundly. When he made me rewrite an entire campaign only to decide afterwards that he liked the original one better. When he made me write down a recipe that his cook dictated over the phone for one of his friends . I really did hate him that time.

While I still do the occasional bit of freelance I have moved on from advertising. But Mohammed's rules of writing still stay with me today. I write all my first drafts long hand with a proper pen on nice paper. One can and must edit, edit, edit and edit some more. One can always do better and must strive to. And most of all, that one must enjoy writing.

Enjoy retirement Mohammed.

(Errors noted, and corrected.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

3 cashmere socks ... my true love gave to me

The tree looked forlorn without the gaily wrapped Christmas presents huddled around its base. She surveyed the living room; the carpet littered with shreds of wrapping paper, cracker halves and long snake like strands of curled green ribbon. They were all outside, he was teaching the children how to ride their new bicycles. They had already tired of their other presents. She sipped her sherry and stared down at the socks. A set of three. Pink, blue and yellow. Cashmere. Socks. Socks. Socks. She repeated the word over and over again in her head till it lost its meaning. It was like a joke out of one of those awful romcoms she used to watch. She picked up the leather bound first edition she had gotten him. The leather bound first edition she had driven four hours North to procure. The leather bound first edition she had to wait an extra two hours for while the antiquarian bookstore owner ate his lunch. Socks. 8 years of marriage and three children. Socks. Was he really that obtuse? Or was he trying to tell her something. Were the socks some kind of scrambled, coded message that she was supposed to decipher? What did they mean? ‘I don’t love you anymore’ ‘I’m having an affair’ ‘What do you expect, you’ve gained 30 pounds in the last 2 years’ ‘I’m an idiot’. He had been overjoyed with his present of course, and hadn’t even had the grace to look ashamed or sheepish or anything when he handed over his present to her. After he left the room she had rummaged about inside the socks, turning them inside out, vainly hoping that there was something inside – a locket, a ring… something. But they were empty. She shivered. The flames of the fire meekly flickered in the later afternoon light. She stood up and walked towards the grate, book and bottle of sherry in hand, muttering her husband’s name over and over again till it too lost all meaning.

Monday, December 10, 2007

mid day melodrama

My 2008 diary arrived in the post today. I used to order my annual diaries from Tulika, but to my great disappointment they have discontinued their Celebrate India series, forcing me to turn elsewhere. Last year, in Brussels I purchased a ridiculously overpriced Herge Diary filled with gorgeous reproductions of line drawings, coloured illustrations and Tin Tin covers reprints from the master’s drawing board. This year I went with something from Mslexia, a writer’s magazine I subscribe to. Small and compact, the Mslexia diary comes packed with submission deadlines for prestigious writing competitions, guidelines and other handy information.

So today, I filled in reminders of birthdays and anniversaries in the year to come. There were the regulars – siblings, parents, in-laws and best friends. New entrants – people I’d met in the last year or so who have come to mean a great deal to me, and then there were those I left out. Friends I am no longer in touch with, people I have slowly drifted away from over the years. It saddened me for some reason, not including them in the diary. Leaving a dated box empty was all it took to exclude them from my life.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Lost in retell

Growing up, my father would often remind me that I came from a family of illustrious Sanskrit scholars. Whether this was to make me work harder at my conjugations and declensions or to take the language more seriously than as an easy means of scoring high marks, or to impress upon me our family’s academic lineage, I still do not know, but the weight of this legacy often made its presence uncomfortably felt. My father himself was a student of the language, and Kalidasa was quoted over our dinner table as normally as the price of onions was bandied about in other homes; and, it was not uncommon to see my father leafing through a yellowing, tattered copy of Abhignana Shakuntalam with a satisfied smile on his face. One of his favourite passages in the book, however, was by the German poet, Goethe.

“Would’st thou the young year’s blossoms
And the fruits of its decline
And all by which soul is charmed
Enraptured, feasted, fed,
Would’st thou the Earth and Heaven itself
In one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Sakuntala ! and all at
Once is said”

Luckily, modern retellings of classical stories are supposed to be unfettered by the ghosts of the past. So, it was with an open mind that I set off to watch Little India, the Trestle Theatre Company’s interpretation of Shakuntala’s and Dushyanta’s romance, and their son Bharata’s search for his father many years later. Trestle is known in the UK for its masked, highly physical performances often staged in collaboration with a diverse range of artists, participants and organisations on a local, regional, national and international level. Though not a masked production, this re-imagining of Shakuntala’s story was born through collaborations with the Indian theatre company Little Jasmine and incorporated elements of kalaripayattu, konnakol or vocal rhythms and a series of bharatanatyam hastas.

Shakuntala was played by the lovely Audrie Woodhouse whose lithe body and expressive eyes seemed well suited for the role of the part celestial forest nymph. Though she nimbly executed the kalari movements there was a sense of everything being told to the audience many times over — through dialogues, kalari and mudras — so much so that some scenes plodded along. Sartaj Garewal’s Dushyanta was comical at times, shouting out dialogues and executing a series of Bruce Lee like kung-fu moves. The play bill claimed that Garewal was an exponent of Fujian White Crane Kung Fu and apparently he was rather eager to prove this to be true. Unfortunately he chose to show us his prowess at rather inopportune moments, such as after the death of his father, pounding his fists against the stage floor while executing what appeared to be martial art push ups. Ashwin Bolar completed the cast as a Bharata who spends much of the play on all fours, skulking about in corners, coveting his father’s ring and then subsequently losing it in the river in a manner not unlike but not half as compelling as Gollum. (Yes, yes Shakuntala is the one who loses the ring, but this is a modern retelling and such things may be overlooked)

But it was difficult to over look other things. The dialogues seemed to have taken inspiration from a 1970s potboiler (“You mean my father is alive? You lied to me?” “He is dead to me!”), the mudras were sloppily executed and the kalari seemed to have been incorporated willy nilly (At one point Dushyanta engages in a kalari tussle with the recently spurned and pregnant Shakuntala.) And save for a few strobe disco lights and the sound of traffic piped in when Bharata ventures to the big bad city in search of his father the ‘modern’ angle was all but missing for me. This is a shame, for the story is ripe for retelling with characters facing predicaments modern day audiences can relate to — a single mother, an absent father and a rebellious teen. But it felt as though mere lip service has been paid to these themes. I couldn't help but wonder how the story would have fared had it been set on a gritty council estate.

Watching the story unfold on stage I was torn between the urge to cringe and laugh, and succumbed quietly to both temptations in turns. And sadly it wasn’t just me. I watched the play with an audience of hip, South London teenage drama students who sniggered frequently and not so quietly. And it would be unfair to blame it on callow youth, for I watched A Disappearing Number (on the life of the mathematician Ramanujan) with a similar audience, but they were spellbound and awed into silence by a superior act.

Like A Disappearing Number though, the sets of Little India were simple and innovative and deserve mention. Comprising predominantly of a canvas slung between two posts that served variously as hammock and hovel, at one point it sweetly transformed into the ring swallowing fish.

No doubt, Trestle was well intentioned in its efforts but good intentions do not necessarily translate in to a good production. One wishes Trestle had focused more on the story for though myths are often simple tales at heart, they can be rather tricky to tell, and Little India lost its essence under all those kalari kicks and rhythmic vocals. My theatre companion that evening, a noted classical dancer had a wry theory about this: “It’s another border raid: you want something different, but your coffers run empty, so you just plunder the next village or kingdom or art form and carry away bounties, often, beauties you don’t know what to do with except display them — and your cleverness! Then you end up making a spectacle of yourself instead of a cross-form, cross-art spectacle!”

Perhaps the next time I want a retelling of this story I will return to my father, a late Sunday afternoon and his yellowing copy of Shakuntalam. Thankfully, some spaces are still inviolable.


This appeared in the Arts section of today's Newindpress on Sunday.

Friday, December 07, 2007

If you read one thing today then read

This profile/interview by Jabberwock of my favourite author, Anita Desai!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Raymond Carver's Principles of a Story

I've been struggling lately... What's a good short story? Is it ok to offer the reader a glimpse into a world and then draw the curtains just when they're getting interested? Can you do that with every story?

My writing group suggested I go back and re-read the stories I've written till now in an attempt to identify patterns and problems. A bad idea. It's left me even more confused and makes me wonder - is there a point to any of these stories? Can I even call them that?

Then I do what what is the last (and sometimes first) resort... I google: How to write a short story.

And I find this.

Ps. I am still confused but at least now I have some very inspiring three by five cards up on the wall.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


The squirrels here are different from the ones back home. Back home they are tall, lean and hungry. Their long whip like tails flicking about, decorated with three white stripes. Here they are short and rotund, their bushy tails sans decoration resembling my father’s shaving brush from long ago. The squirrel outside my window would not look out of place in a top hat and coat, monocle perched precariously, gold fob peeking out. He is unmindful of the fine, steady drizzle and the pigeons that hobble-bobble around him. Perhaps he is looking for his lost white stripes.