Category Archives: Literature

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.

Disability in literature, mythology, folklore and films

Captain Hook

Have you read Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham? The central character of the novel is a young man with a club foot. If you haven’t read this book do read it not just because it has a character that has a disability and has something “different”, it is a story that tells you how failure and success, sadness and happiness and intelligence and stupidity go hand-in-hand and despite that, we move on. The disability of Philip Carey affects every part of his life and it doesn’t allow him to live his life the way he would have liked to live, but that is not the central theme of the story. These are the problems that he has, but aside from these problems, the major problems that he faces are quintessentially related to the volatile human nature that is extremely unpredictable. He can be mean and judgemental just as people can be mean and judgemental to him. His disability doesn’t necessarily make him sensitive and if he is sensitive compared to his friends and colleagues, it is because that’s the way he is and it has got nothing to do with the way he walks. The greatest thing about this novel is that Philip doesn’t have to prove anything because he has a disability. He just tries to live his life the way he wants to live irrespective of the fact whether he succeeds or not.

These thoughts were triggered while I was reading this blog post that was published on the occasion of the Blogging against Disablism Day. I never knew that the word “disablism” existed, but it has a nice sound.

The author rightly says that people with disabilities are often depicted as vile, scheming and demented characters in various works of fiction:

There are far too many books out there that portray characters with disabilities and chronic illnesses in ways that are deeply destructive and have a seriously negative impact on the understanding of disability in general. However (and this is a big however), most of these books are clearly written by authors who have not considered their portrayal at all, and who clearly fail to respect experiences that are different to their own. These are the authors who fail to realise that disabled people are also, actually, people. These are the authors who consistently portray disabled characters as, for example, useless and/or monstrous. But these aren’t exactly difficult tropes to avoid if you treat disability as a genuine character trait, part of the full colour of your character’s depiction, rather than an easy symbol or device for your plot.

This problem arises from the fact that disability is not mainstream. You don’t see disabled people roaming around in the streets, catching public transport, getting into arguments with other people on the street, fighting elections, watching movies, doing shopping at a grocery store, visiting prostitutes, getting married, becoming successful professionals, going on dates, going to office and doing all sorts of things that people are seen doing matter-of-factly. Coming across a person with disability is always a special occasion.

Whereas situation in the comparatively developed countries might be improving and you may come across persons with disabilities more often than not, in less developed countries like India, they’re mostly seen when they are struggling with basic necessities. A visually impaired person is totally at the mercy of someone who can see especially at public places like roads, stations, stairwells and markets. A person with physical disability is often seen being helped with climbing stairs or walking across the road or something like that. Worse, you see disabled persons begging. You never see a disabled person simply going on with his or her life without having to bother about getting some sort of help. This is the problem with the environment, the infrastructure. We haven’t reached a state when public places, offices and institutions are made in such a manner that they can be universally used rather than just by people who fit in a conventional box of able-bodiedness. Once this happens, we will see persons with disabilities depicted just the way they are in literature, hypothetically.

Another problem is that we take visual cues as behavioural patterns. We have a very strict definition of what is pretty and what is not, what is beautiful and what is not and how good people look and how bad people look. For example, in most of the TV ads you will never see an intelligent person taking intelligent decisions despite being on the heavier side. He or she is always shown fumbling, unsure, doing stupid things. And then there is this slim, fit-looking, preferably taller person who has a very confident expression about him or her and takes the right decision at the right time and solves a problem that a person on the heavier side does not seem to be able to solve. It’s not just shape, even the colour matters. A darker person is shown to be under confident and not doing much in life. And then he or she suddenly uses a face cream that makes him or her fair and lo and behold! The world is nothing but a plethora of successes and happy moments.

This stereotyping is also extended to ages, social backgrounds and professions. Younger students are always making fools of their teachers and professors. In mobile phone ads, people in their 40s and 50s are often shown fumbling with their gadgets while their teen kids are shown totally cool about the latest features in their mobile phones.

Recently I saw an awareness ad in which a person from a socially disadvantaged background is shown to be gawking at a good-looking girl in a public transport vehicle. A college going well-off-looking yuppie sort of a youngster notices that and comes stands between the girl and the gawking guy. The stereotypes would have totally gone topsy-turvy had they shown a well-off guy gawking at the girl and the dark looking person from a socially disadvantaged background feeling offended and coming between the girl and the guy.

So I think more than disability, it’s the perception that is at work. You want to show a bad person or an ill-mannered person in the visual form and because you’re not very sure of your writing abilities, you use disabilities like a crooked eye, or a stuttering way of talking or walking with a limp.

As I have mentioned above, to a normal (read able-bodied) person disability is quite alien. It’s like for the directors of art movies, especially in India, depicting poverty used to be an exotic activity. That is why people like Satyajit Ray would make voyeuristic movies about how poor people live, how they dress up, how they eat and procreate. Then these movies were shown to foreign audiences because they had never seen such glaring poverty and the behavioural attributes attached to it. That is why when there is a disabled person in a movie, the highlight is his or her disability, and not what sort of life he or she lives.

Even in Indian mythology and folklore, disability is used to exaggerate villainous as well as saintly characters, or they are used symbolically. In Mahabharata, you have a limping uncle (Shakuni mama) who is the most scheming person in the entire plot. Then you have the visually impaired Dhritrashra who can see nothing and he is totally indecisive as well as impotent. Ashtavakra (having 8 physical deformities) in Ramayana had to prove his worth by showing exceptional intelligence. The jealous and evil uncle of Heer, Kaido, also had a limp and walked with a stick, but his character is a bit complex because his evil and jealousy originate from the raw deal that he gets from the society for having a disability.

Anything that is not ordinary becomes a stereotype, and I think in most of the stories, disability, whether depicted in good light or bad light, is used as a stereotype rather than making a statement. So when a writer writes about a villain who has a limp, he or she is not trying to say that people with limps are bad, he or she usually just wants to express it stereotypically. I’m not saying this is right, but this is how stereotypes are used.

Will this change once disability becomes mainstream? I don’t think so. Things will surely improve, but do you really think people who create stereotyped characters using race, color, regional accent and body shapes will be open-minded enough to depict persons with disabilities in a non-stereotypical manner?

Rest in peace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, really

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Death often catches you unguarded – I’m not talking about the people who die because I think (unless the death happens due to murder or accident) they have an inkling beforehand – I’m talking about people who are left behind. There I was worrying about what article to write, where should I send another pitch and where I should do a follow-up, which single-page websites I should set up for Steve, how to spend some time with my daughter, and then suddenly, I saw this message on my Twitter timeline “R.I.P Garcia”.

Which Garcia? I thought. It can’t be THAT Garcia. It took me some time and a quick search on the Internet to find that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is dead.

While looking at his picture on my computer monitor my daughter came in my room, looked at the photo and asked, “Who is he?”

When I tried to tell her, I couldn’t. I realised I was choking. I rapidly swallowed the lump that was rising in my throat and blinked my eyes to hold back my tears and then explained to her that he was my favourite living writer and he just died so I’m feeling very sad. When I told her how old he was, she tenderly touched my shoulder and said, “That’s all right, old people die, even I will die when I grow old.”

It hit me how fast time flies. Many years ago I had taken a resolve that I would meet him in person someday, and then forgot about that resolve, and now, he is dead. With every passing day, with every passing week, with every passing month, life goes by and then one day you realise, there were so many things that you wanted to do, and you just got distracted by the world around you.

Love in the Time of Cholera was accidentally left behind by my cousin who was visiting us from Canada. I remember she was one day pointing at the book and telling me that if I read books, I must read that one but sadly, she said, she had to take it back.

English books those days were not easily available especially when I couldn’t physically scour through various bookshops and had to solely depend on my mother and other people to visit bookshops for me and then use their own discretion. So my exposure was the British classics of Charles Dickens and Emily Brontë types, or Russian books that you would get in the book fair at Pragati Maidan. Love in the Time of Cholera with explicit sex was a totally new experience for me, especially the protagonist Florentino Ariza having wild sex with his teenage niece at the ripe old age of 75 (if I’m not forgetting). But then, only Garcia could pull off a love affair that spanned decades while remaining, sort of unrequited.

“I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”

You can’t imagine how many nights I must had spent trying to think how Fermina Daza looked.

Whether one agrees with the inherent value system represented in the book (and in his other books), the extraordinary writing style made a deep impression on me and I desperately wanted to read more from him. I’m pretty sure that my best writing (literary, not professional) came under his influence. I don’t remember how I came across One Hundred Years of Solitude but this is a book that I have read thrice, although, initially I didn’t want to read it because, what sort of book would it be that starts with an execution?

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Those days – the time between the college and trying to set up my own business – I had no concept of magical realism. I realised that his characters existed in the realms of reality and unreality and there were many things happening in his books that you couldn’t pinpoint weather they were real worldly or supernatural. As a young boy he spent lots of time with his grandmother and she used to tell him all sorts of fantastical tales and many of her characters were a mix of real and unreal.

Later I found many writers, including Salman Rushdie adopted magical realism to create captivating narratives.

My wife often says that it’s very easy to create unreal characters and then weave stories around them and it is very difficult to weave stories on real-life characters. For some time I had started believing that because I had forgotten how Garcia wrote. I think when you write well, you just write well, it doesn’t matter if you are writing stories around surrealistic characters or some rickshaw puller dying of hunger.

That was the way he wrote. I have read a few Nobel prize winning writers and I firmly believe that in contemporary times Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the most deserving. He never wrote to receive awards and you can clearly see that in his writings. Even if he wrote one word, it genuinely came from him and not from some aspiration to prove something. That was his strength.

His death has given me a small jolt today. In the flurry of everyday activities you begin to believe that life is infinite. While growing old, somehow you forget that your idols are also getting old. People whom you would like to meet one day are also getting old and if you don’t hurry, they may die before you meet them.

You saw lots of turbulence Gabriel Garcia Marquez, physical, intellectual, emotional and worldly. Rest in peace. Thanks for enriching our lives with your beautiful words. Thanks for making solitude charming. You have left the world richer.

Khushwant Singh passes away

Khushwant Singh

We weren’t married yet when Alka (my wife) and I had a big argument over Khushwant Singh. I had just completed his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice and I was quite smitten by the author, less by his writing prowess and more by his wild lifestyle – something in the way he had lived his life appealed to me a lot according to my frame of mind at that time. But at that time I also had a big crush on Arundhati Roy, you can easily make out how I used to think during those days.

My future wife on the other hand found them quite disgusting, with his attitude towards women and general morality. In the heat of the argument she said that he was not better than a thief, and if I liked him, I too were not better than a thief. If I remember, we didn’t speak for some time.

Before the age of the Internet we got plenty of time to read. My father used to get The Hindustan Times and there I used to come across Khushwant Singh’s regular column called With Malice Towards One and All with a cartoon of him sitting in a lightbulb. I remember I used to enjoy reading the column but I guess it didn’t make much of an impact on the preference of my newspaper when, when it had stopped mattering to my father which newspaper we got, I switched over to, first, The Indian Express, and then later on to The Pioneer. Not even once I missed the column and in fact, I recall reading it when one of my Facebook friends yesterday posted the title of the column as a tribute to the diseased author.

The first story I read of Khushwant Singh was The Portrait of a Lady, a short story that was in my English course book in eleventh class. One of my favorite stories in the compilation.

My wife is quite well read so obviously she knew more about Khushwant Singh than I did. She knew how he constantly had extramarital affairs and how he treated women around him. She knew how he took advantage of people and whatever plum postings that he had landed were basically the result of the various contacts and the ass licking he had done. Even in the autobiography he had mentioned his various affairs and how his wife was always in distress due to that and then how when she almost left him, he grew depressed and visited the Bangla Saheb Gurudwara to pray which, now I understand, is blatantly hypocritical. I didn’t know that he was a big Congress stooge, he was very close to the Gandhi family and he was among the few editors who openly supported the emergency Indira Gandhi imposed on the country. He always made sure that powerful people knew him and liked him.

This, I don’t particularly hold against him. I started disliking him when I found him to be in the same category of people I normally don’t respect – people who are secular not because they believe in secularism, but just in order to pander to a particular, I would call profitable, ideology. Khushwant Singh belongs to a band of intellectuals who have an illogically soft spot for Pakistan in general, and Muslims in particular. Now, before you throw up and call me names, I have nothing against Muslims and I consider them as much a part of India as a person from any other religion. That is not the point. I am among those who believe that the real problem in India is that we pay too much attention to which person belongs to which religion. People like Khushwant Singh constantly try to instill fear among Muslims against Hindus and keep the cauldrons of mutual suspicion boiling. Even if there is a problem, and even if the Muslims are at fault, they will always blame the Hindus. Not because they actually think that the Hindus are at fault, it’s just that since the Muslims are in minority and the vote bank suits their political masters, they should be given a longer rope compared to the majority community. Many of the country’s problems originate from exactly this mentality.

Then I came across this text by him, on none other than Arun Shourie:

“I stopped associating with Arun Shourie. I read of his rise to eminence as a cabinet minister and a member of the BJP’s think-tank. His book on Dr B.R. Ambedkar offended Dalits. He was roughed up by them while presiding over a meeting in Mumbai. Being hurt himself he wanted to hurt other people.

“He has taken every opportunity to display his disadvantaged son in his wheel chair. I feel very sorry for him but no longer admire him.”

Arun Shourie normally takes his son, Aditya, to various ceremonies and functions because one, he completely adores his son, and two, he takes him along because he wants to share every proud moment with his son. If people like Khushwant Singh cannot see a family with a disabled person beyond the disability, it is not the problem of the family, but the person judging them. Whatever political opinion Arun Shourie has and whatever acrimonious feelings Khushwant Singh may have developed because of that, it doesn’t mean that Arun Shourie’s sons disability has impacted his political views. This made me realise that he was not just an opportunist but he was also cheap person. Good that he never had a disabled son or a disabled daughter because he would have been a terrible father.

So as a writer I don’t have any problem with him, and in fact he wrote quite well, and more than that, he was consistent. No matter how screwed up his value system was, at the core of his heart he was a writer.

Then in the later years I found that his father, Shobha Singh, was responsible for the persecution of Sardar Bhagat Singh by testifying that he actually saw the young revolutionary throwing the bomb whereas from his position or from the timings it was not possible that he could have seen Bhagat Singh. Why hold this against Khushwant Singh? Well, knowing that his value system was not in the right place, you can excuse him. But the remaining respect was lost, not respect, rather, the remaining tolerance was lost. Never even once he wrote about his father in one of his books.

Anyway, undoubtedly he was one of the greatest writers in contemporary India and even if grudgingly, I have to accept that. His death is an end of an era. I don’t resent the way he lived his life surrounded by whiskey and women, my only problem with him was his skewed sense of secularism.

Quite revealing facts about Franz Kafka

There’s no evidence for any kind of political intent in Kafka’s work. The Trial seems to have been inspired by a confrontation between Kafka and Felice Bauer’s family, who were becoming quite naturally pissed off by Franz’s refusal to make an honest woman of his girlfriend. Because of Kafka’s Jewish ancestry, Metamorphosis is generally thought to be a commentary on anti-semitism, but even though all three of Kafka’s sisters and many of his friends perished in the camps, at the time he was writing, the Czech working classes were firmly the underdogs in his social milieu and the concept of Untermenschno more than a twinkle in Hitler’s eye. It’s more likely that Kafka had read Freud and came to the story as an expression of his conflicted emotions about his own sexual urges (yes, he wrote a scad of letters on that subject too).

However, in the post war years and interpreted through the telescope of history, these books became transformed into a solemn commentary on Things to Come. Kafka became a literary superstar, identified as an influence on luminaries such as Camus, Sartre and Ray Bradbury.

The Blagger’s Guide to Franz Kafka