Blossoming Roses – my story on Wattpad

While going through my folders I came across a set of short stories that I wrote many years ago. They have just been lying around on my computer so decided to put them on Wattpad one by one.

I heard the wind blowing through the trees as I rounded the bend that led to her house. Her house was not difficult to find, as on that road, for miles, there was only one house, hers – she had told on the phone. Massive, saint-like “Bargads” bowed and danced as if in a trance, shaking off excess leaves that swirled in little eddies. Occasionally a twig drifted down, startling me out of my reverie. I could see her house now across the barley field, covered with the golden rays of the late-afternoon sun; the door seemed open. She was expecting me? I, as usual was running late. But that was according to my plan. I hadn’t informed her that I was coming that day.

Read the full story on Wattpad.

Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchDue to various reasons it took me more than three months to complete The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I came across the name of the book accidentally (as it often happens with my reading pattern as I don’t interact much with avid readers) on a blog – don’t remember in what context. When I started reading the book I didn’t even know the meaning of “Goldfinch”. It is a bird primarily found in America and Europe. There is a finch family of birds (again, I wasn’t even aware of the word “finch”)

Why did it take me such a long time? Is it a tedious book? To an extent, yes it is, but that was not the main reason. In between I read another book. Then I was busy writing current affairs and political articles for various publications. Professional commitments, obviously. So at a stretch I couldn’t read the book for more than 30 minutes on a particular day. And for many weeks I couldn’t even get back to it. Hence such a delay.

No matter how tedious the book seems, reading Donna Tartt is always “paisa vasool” – what you may call in English, worth every penny you have spent – if you’re looking for an out and out intellectual experience while enjoying a good story. Does it mean The Goldfinch is a very good book? It depends on your reading habit. It depends on what you seek from a book.

She made a mark on me when I borrowed one of her first books, The Secret History, from the British Council library in Delhi. I don’t even remember getting the book issued on my own; I guess someone else got it for me as I wasn’t able to visit the library as frequently as I would have liked. Unknowingly I had decided, whenever she wrote her next book, I would read it.

Then, if I’m not forgetting, my brother-in-law brought The Little Friend to our house because he was reading it those days and then give it to me to read once he had completed. I dropped whatever I was reading those days (very little, maybe one book in a year, and maybe not even that) and read the book in 4-5 days.

Coming back to The Goldfinch, it’s a first person account of a boy named Theodore Decker who gets caught in a bomb explosion in a museum, when he was 13. Although he survives, his mother dies. After the explosion, when he comes to his senses, he finds himself near a dying old man who gives him a ring to deliver to someone. Before the explosion, he had seen this old man accompanying a girl he had been drawn to in an exceptional manner. Both the old man and Theodore – “Theo” – have no idea whether the girl has survived the explosion or not.

There is blood everywhere, his ears are numb, his head hurts, he cannot see, and amidst that, the old man goes on and on and while he’s talking to Theo he points to a small painting named The Goldfinch, supposedly painted by Carel Fabritius, a 15th century painter. There is total confusion and chaos. Theo isn’t sure whether the old man is going to survive or not. He promises to send in help, takes the painting and somehow exits the museum. Expecting another explosion and taking him to be just another kid loitering around the crime scene, one of the policemen chases him away without paying attention to what he’s trying to tell. He thinks that his mother is either still inside trying hard to come out, or she’s already out and heading towards home. Somehow he reaches home and starts waiting for his mother. He’s pretty sure that sooner or later she is going to turn up.

Beyond her mother there is no life for him. The alcoholic, abusive father has left them, bringing both of them closer. Her mother, a former, lesser-known model, had deep interest in arts, especially painting and Theo inherits some of that interest. Before the museum they were heading to Theo’s school because he had been suspended for either smoking on the premises or indulging in an activity that cannot be indulged in inside the school – I forget. Since there was some time left, they decided to visit the museum where his mother wanted to see one of her favorite paintings. Suddenly, she leaves him in a room, remembering that she wanted to have another look at a particular painting just for a few more minutes, and goes into another room which perhaps bore the maximum brunt of the explosion. At home, alone, he is convinced that his mother is alive somewhere, caught up in something unavoidable, and is going to come back any time. He even saves the leftover food for her. He saves the painting for her in his room.

The indifferent but highly concerned social services persons pay him a visit and then later on leave him under the care of his friend Andy’s upper-class family that takes him in with a flourish of formal and restrained familiarity. Theo and Andy are the quintessential bullied kids in the school in the typical American manner simply for being good at their studies. Andy’s parents welcome Theo into the family because they believe Theo helps Andy open up. The painting is still at the old apartment.

While staying at Andy’s place, Theo visits the downtown New York where James Hobart – Hobie – lives. Hobie is the person to whom the dying man at the Museum – Welty – wanted Theo to deliver the ring and probably the painting. Hobie and Welty were business partners. The ring Theo takes but leaves the painting behind because by now he is scared that if he reveals that the world-famous painting is with him (on TV he has been watching how there is a massive search for paintings that are missing after the explosion and people are being arrested), the police would arrest him and hand him over to the social services people. Hobie lives in a workshop-cum-apartment-antiques shop. At Hobie’s place he meets Pippa – the girl who was with Welty before the explosion, the same girl he had been so strongly drawn to. Pippa was Welty’s granddaughter. Aside from injuries in the limbs, she has also received grave injury in her brain and she mostly sits in a dazed state, listening to classical music. He spends some time with Pippa and as he makes further plans to visit the place on a repeat basis, he is told by Hobie that a distant aunt of Pippa’s is taking her away as she was badly injured in the head due to the explosion at the Museum and the treatment was not possible at Hobie’s place.

Andy’s family is about to adopt Theo when his father reappears and offers to take him to Las Vegas where he is currently staying with his new wife Xandra. With the help of the guards at the apartment building where he and his mother used to stay, he is able to conceal the painting and take it with him to Las Vegas.

Later on it is revealed why exactly his father brings him to Las Vegas. In Las Vegas he lives like a vagabond with no restrictions on drugs, delinquency, alcoholism and gambling – his father seems to be filthy rich and he seems to be getting all his money from gambling. In school he meets a new friend, Boris, the son of an alcoholic Russian contractor who constantly abuses his son. From thereon starts a lifelong friendship replete with drug abuse, betrayal and loyalty.

This is just the beginning of the story. If you ask me what the story is about, I would say it is about the small boy Theo who has to cope, all alone, the massive tragedy that he faces after the explosion. Why the explosion happens, who is responsible, the author doesn’t touch upon that piece of information. It just happens and wreaks havoc with multiple lives including Theo’s and Pippa’s. They are both shattered for life, Theo emotionally and Pippa both physically and emotionally. The painting, always remaining in the backdrop, plays the central part, because by clinging to the painting, he doesn’t want to let go of that moment when he lost his mother and everything precious that he had. Mostly it is about Theo’s and Boris’s friendship.

Donna Tartt seems to do lots of research while writing her books. For instance, Hobie buys damaged antique furniture, restores it, and then sells it to his selected clientele. There are some very detailed descriptions of the processes, emotions and materials involved during restoration. Painting, yes, The Goldfinch is the central theme and hence naturally there has to be lots of talk about various paintings, various painters and one feels like reading a highly seasoned art critique. Then of course, there are drugs.

In all the three books from Donna Tartt, The Secret History, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch, narcotics feature prominently. She talks about drugs like a person who has had first-hand experience. Lots of chemicals, even medicines that are otherwise taken for ailments, can induce drugs-type effects and hence, many people buy them just for that purpose. Lots of educational stuff if you want to get a glimpse of drug addicts.

She knows a lot about the topics she covers in her books and sometimes, because of that, she seems to ramble on and on and to a person who isn’t reading for the sake of reading (rather than getting done with the book), it may seem a bit offputting. There was a time when I was desperate to complete the book but it just wouldn’t complete. In the end, it goes on and on and one feels she is trying to imitate Ayn Rand. The book has its faults, as every other book. For instance, War and Peace is perhaps one of the best books you can ever read, but sometimes it needlessly seems to go on and on and tends to get boring.

Reading some books is like listening to the FM radio, you can drive and listen. Some books are like listening to some really good music for which you have to sit and pay attention. For classical music, you need to know your music. The Goldfinch is of the second category. You will have to pay attention. Your vocabulary should be good and you should be really interested in reading. With these attributes assumed, it is quite a good book. Otherwise, you may like to skip it.

Bookstores, yeah, but…

Congested bookshop

I have always loved bookstores. How it feels to be among hundreds, if not thousands or millions (as in very big stores) of books arranged inside various stacks, waiting to be picked. There is a magical dimness and smell between the racks that can only be felt by the real lover of books. When I was in college I used to spend a major chunk of my time in the library, although during those days the only books I used contained mathematical problems. Now that I think of it, it’s a pity that I never really, actually, used my college library to enhance my literary reading. But then, now that I think of it, I wouldn’t have been able to access literature books because they were on the first and second floors and the only way up was the stairwell which I couldn’t use.

This is a major problem for me when it comes to wandering around books in a bookstore or library. In my college days I used to walk with my crutches and it was still possible to squeeze through the confined spaces between racks and almirahs, in the library, but when it came to visiting bookstores, even then it was a problem because there is normally very little space between facing racks and normally there are books spread across the floor. Now that I am on power wheelchair, sometimes it becomes difficult even to enter a bookstore, forget about going through the books.

This is a reason why, contrary to what is suggested in this article, I prefer to buy all my books from either Amazon.com (when I’m buying Kindle books) or Flipkart (when I’m buying paperbacks and hardcovers) because all you have to do is use the search box, find the book that you want, add it to the cart, use your credit card to pay, and there you have it. When it comes to Kindle books, you can start reading your book, literally, within a couple of minutes. This is not possible if you go to a physical bookstore.

Not being able to visit a bookstore does not mean I’m totally against the concept of having bookstores, although it is more emotional and less practical considering how many trees we might be saving by opting for digital books rather than paper books. Even the space. So much space is taken by physical libraries. Instead, all the digital versions of the books can be stored in a publicly accessible server. Great libraries have been destroyed by invading armies because it was so easy to burn them down; had they been digitised their various copies would have been available all over the world. Right now, given the technological constraints, I know this is not possible for everyone to access digital books just the way people can access physical books, but if it can be done, it should be done. There are many books for which there is no other option than reading the physical books because our handheld devices are not as flexible as normal books. For instance, books containing lots of maps and images are normally rendered useless in a typical Kindle reader. They may look good in an iPad or a larger tablet, but I haven’t had first-hand experience in that. It’s no fun going through something like an Atlas on a PC, although it is more interactive and easier to use.

Another aspect is, reading a book doesn’t just entail absorbing its contents, it’s a complete experience. Your environment, your physical position, you’re bent of mind at that time, they all become a part of your reading experience. Even purchasing a book in itself is a different experience when you do it through a conventional bookstore. So many people at the same time are browsing various titles and their common intention is to find the book of their desire, whether they want to gift it or read it. This common feeling certainly has a bearing over the atmosphere of the bookstore.

I’m pretty sure, although I haven’t tabulated my experiences, the way I read a paper book must be quite different from the way I read a Kindle book. Again, personally for me reading a Kindle book is easier compared to reading a paperback or hardcover because I can easily place my device in front of me without having to hold it, which is absolutely the case with a normal book. Perhaps this is the reason why I’m reading more books these days compared to the days when I neither had a tablet nor a Kindle reader.

Review of Fatal Admiration

Fatal Admiration by Irfan Iqbal Gheta is a story of three people – Rishi, Shobha and Neha – brought together, some intentionally and some unintentionally, into a whirlpool of uncontrollable passion that leads to totally unexpected circumstances.

After going through a few pages I almost decided not to read the book because somehow I could not relate to, not just the characters, but also the way they talked to each other. Irfan, before sending the book for review, had asked me whether I would like to review a book that can be categorised as “mushy romantic love”. I have always had an open mind when it comes to reading so I told him, no problem, send me the book and I would read it and if possible, also publish a review of it.

So why I almost stopped reading it? At the risk of sounding boastful, the way a writer writes, matters to me a lot. Although I’m pretty open about the categories of the literature I spent time on, one thing I cannot compromise with is the writing style. The writing style needs to resonate with me and as far as Fatal Admiration goes, it didn’t.

Some context is needed.

A couple of weeks ago one of my clients and I met over beer at my place and he asked me whether I have read Chetan Bhagat. I told him I haven’t and he was quite insistent that I must. “He knows how to talk to the young audience, he understands their pain and their day-to-day dilemmas like no other contemporary writer,” he said.

The problem I faced while trying to read Chetan Bhagat was again, his writing style. I didn’t find it very fascinating. It was too simplistic for me. Perhaps it was also because just before trying to read Chetan Bhagat, I had completed Manas Ko Hans by Amritlal Nagar which, if you read the book, lifts your literary experience to a totally different dimension. After reading that, a few paragraphs of Chetan Bhagat looked very drab and uninspiring. It was like listening to Justin Bieber immediately after listening to, let us say, Luciano Pavarotti, or in the Indian context, listening to Sonu Nigam immediately after listening to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. After that, somehow, no matter how hard I tried, I could never bring myself to reading Chetan Bhagat again.

Unfortunately the same thing happened when I started reading Fatal Admiration. I was in the midst of reading The Goldfinch (I’m still reading it) by Donna Tartt and reading one of her books is an out and out intellectual experience, unfailingly. So this is some sort of injustice that happened. But this time, I was aware of my mental disposition (and more importantly, I had committed to Irfan that I would write a review for his book) and hence I forced myself to go on reading Fatal Admiration.

I’m glad I did.

As I mentioned above, Fatal Admiration is a story of three characters, Rishi and Shobha, husband-and-wife, and Neha, who is Shobha’s cousin. Rishi is obsessed with Neha and cannot come to terms with the fact that she is not attracted to him in any way, and to rub salt to the wounds, she gets her heart broken by another thankless person and then in a rebound, falls in love with another person.

The story begins with Rishi finding abandoned leggings and panties in his bedroom, sprawled upon his own bed, belonging to Neha, whom he has craved for, for many years. He talks about how the sight had set his imagination on fire and heightened his expectations inordinately. The reader never gets to learn how the leggings and the panties ended up there (or whether it was a random act or had a purpose to it) but the scene definitely sets stage for a psychological incarceration that is tantalising as well as erotic for the male protagonist. It’s like reading wrong signs at the wrong time. Undergarments have been left on his bed, he knows that the person sitting in the drawing room is sitting without her undergarments (or this is what he assumes anyway) and the person sitting without her undergarments, he conveniently assumes, knows that he has seen the undergarments. It was like an oasis to someone lost in a desert.

In the beginning, he is not communicating his thoughts vocally or through email, he is simply jotting them down in his moleskin notebook.

As the turn of events takes place, it is revealed to him that the notebook is read by the subject of his enchantment.

Henceforth a series of interactions take place between Rishi and Neha with intermittent references to his wife Shobha who happens to be Neha’s cousin sister. The interactions alternate between loose talk and passionate, although one way, physical longing. The style of conversations is quite peculiar and if you have never read such literature you may also find it enchanting in a twisted way. Most of the story is narrated in monologues. The characters either talk to the reader or to each other through emails and notes left in a red Moleskin notebook.

Though immature and sometimes even awkward, the dialogues are quite engaging in a sense that, they seem to be coming from people who would actually talk the way they do and if Irfan has purposely done that, he has a great talent for getting under the skin of his characters, just in the manner Nabokov could do in Lolita. They also give you a voyeuristic experience.

This is where I contradict myself. There are lots of clichés and jargons in the narrative, especially within the dialogues (would you say to your object of desire, “I would like to be in your good books”?) They seem jarring so this is something you may have to ignore. On many occasions the language seems very artificial, something that we don’t normally use while talking to each other. But that will improve as he writes more and gets more comfortable with the language.

If you like a good story that goes fast and ends fast and has a totally unexpected turn of events, you’re going to like this book.

Why mythology sells in India

This blog post seems to have been written in a hurry, but it raises a very interesting question: why are Indians so obsessed with its mythological stories and why these stories are being told and retold in various forms?

First, I don’t think Indians are obsessed with mythology; many Indians are obsessed with religion and this somehow gets interconnected with the mythological stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata and second, to be frank, these stories are awesome. You can derive hundreds of stories, without even changing them, from just Ramayana and Mahabharata, leave alone other tales.

Regarding why they are being rewritten, I agree that originality lacks in the current milieu, and this is not just applicable to rewriting mythological literature. Classic Bollywood songs are remixed on a routine basis and even if they try to be original, they’re mostly mimicking sufi and folk music.

This lack of effort and originality has also permeated writing. It’s easier to tell a tale that already exists and people can relate to.

Mythological stories that have been a part of our culture have this strange effect: even if you listen to them or read them again and again, somehow you never find them boring. This may also be because mythological stories are rarely enjoyed in isolation. Millions of people, you’re consciously or unconsciously aware, have read these stories or one or another form of them. So there is an invisible connection with a large mass when you are reading these stories. You feel a part of a group, a part of a cult. Add a new writing style, some contextual twists and there you have got it, practically a new piece to sell to your readers.

Besides, very few countries have such a rich tapestry of mythological stories that don’t just deliver religious messages, but also teach you morality and human values, and are replete with heroism that everybody can relate to. For example, in Mahabharata it is sometimes very difficult to decide who is a hero and who is a villain; every sort of conflict you can find in its various plots. The line that divides good and evil is constantly being blurred. Ramayana, comparatively, has clear definitions of right and wrong, but on every occasion it teaches you how to take difficult decisions even when you don’t want to take them.

There is also an underlying effort to reconnect with one’s roots in India. The Indian culture is being attacked from the outside and from within and the younger generation, clueless about how to react, tries to cling to these stories as a defence mechanism.