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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Thinking Allowed

They say if a child can't read before they turn six, chances are he/she will never really make it in life. Well, I wasn't that bad but the only stuff that I read till I was 15, was Noddy, a whole lot of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew. I only seriously started reading when I entered college at the age of 15. Rid of the pressures of scraping by in Mathematics and Science, my adventure with books well and truly got underway. I read just about everything that was available in my college library, took part in virtually every creative reading contest, won a couple of inter-collegiate prizes along the way....

One thing truly led to another. It was during the course of my Masters Degree that I made my foray into the fascinating world of book reviews. Handing me my first book for review on Electoral Politics was my then Professor Yogendra Yadav. I took almost two weeks to complete it, had a couple of sleepless nights thinking of the retribution that awaited me for maybe what could be viewed as unwarranted criticism. Nothing of that sort happened, but the offer of do a second review for The Tribune came along.

The temptation of course, was the chance to read yet another book for free and be able to comment on it. That too was published, after it had been given the finishing touches by the then Book Editor T K Ramasamy. Five published reviews down the line, over-confidence became over-bearing and I ended up reviewing an entirely forgettable book on advertising. That was quickly followed by a summons to the editor's office.

Being a naive 19 year old, the first thought that crossed my mind was that this would be a job offer of sorts. But that meeting was anything but. Put face to face against the demanding Mr Ramasamy, I knew it was going to be nothing but trouble with a capital T. Which is what it was. He tore up my review and I think if he had been a little madder those scraps of paper would have come flying into my face. The next line was something that stayed in my head forever: "Never write about anything that doesn't touch you."

It's something that has stood me in good stead right through my journalism days at The Times of India, India Today and now at Channel News Asia.

These happen to be truly exciting times. As I get ready to launch a new book segment 'Off The Shelf' I can't help back but think of those days and those times when it all began. So for a start here are some of the articles and book reviews that have been published over the years.

Thinking's Allowed, so keep those brickbats flowing. Hear from you soon!

Fielding a Diarist
Review by Deepika Shetty
{Bridget Jones’s Diary
by Helen Fielding. Picador, New York. Pages 310. Singapore $ 16. Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding. Picador. Pages 341. Singapore $16. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding. Pages 422. Singapore $16.}

SOMETIMES you really do wonder why one book manages to get exceptional critical acclaim, while another one in the same genre, by the same author in the same era is not quite talked about.

Take Helen Fielding, for instance. The first I heard of her (and I do tend to keep my ears glued to the ground in search of that perfect read) was when there was all the hype and hoopla about the famous diary that provided interesting takes on singlehood. In fact, I loved the book so much that each day I read a page at a time so that there would be some way of extending the drama of the diary. I still recall laughing out loud in the bus when I went through the devilishly witty text.

Sample this excerpt from "Inner Poise" for instance:

Tuesday April 4: "Determined now, to tackle constant lateness for work and failure to address in tray bulging with threats from bailiffs, etc. Resolve to begin self-improvement programme with time and motion study.

7 am: Get weighed

7.03 am: Return to bed in sulk over state. Head-state bad. Sleeping or getting up equally out of question. Think about Daniel.

7.30 am: Hunger pangs force self out of bed. Make coffee, consider grapefruit. Defrost chocolate croissant.

7.55 am: Open wardrobe. Stare at clothes………

10.35 am: Leave house

Three hours and 35 minutes between waking and leaving house is too long. In future must get straight up when wake up and reform entire laundry system. Open paper to read that convicted murderer in America is convinced the authorities have planted a microchip in his buttocks to monitor his movements, so to speak. Horrified by thought of similar microchip being in own buttocks, particularly in the mornings."

There is all this and a whole lot more in a diary that is guaranteed to make even men laugh. A zeitgeist of single female woes it touches at the humour strings by providing a dazzling urban satire of human relationships in our age and time.

Reversal of history

The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher J. Koch. Penguin Books. London. Pages 278.

ALMOST 17 years after the controversial film ‘‘The Year of Living Dangerously’’ was banned by the then Indonesian President Suharto, there has been a role reversal of sorts.

The book written by Tasmanian author Christopher J. Koch attempts to be a fictional account of what was happening in Indonesia but the parallel to the regime that reigned was too plain to miss. So the controversial book that took the avtar of an even more controversial movie was banned by President Suharto even before it was made.

Now the film and the book are in spotlight yet again with the lifting of the ban on its screening. The book that is a compelling tale of romance amid the political turmoil of the 20th century Indonesia attempted to capture the former President’s tumultuous rise to power.

The year was 1965 and the fiercely nationalistic government of god-king Sukarno had brought Indonesia to the brink of chaos. The political commentary woven into a tale of romance tells readers how events in Indonesia were shaped in that telling year and how thousands of suspected communists were almost wiped out from Indonesia.

Journalist Guy Hamilton of the Australian Broadcasting Service (ABS) is sent to report on Indonesia in times of change. "Indonesia was once again the major story on the world file, as it so often was in that era before the Vietnam war swallowed everything." On arrival he meets the hard to miss Chinese-Australian cameraman Billy Kwan. "There is no way, unless you have unusual self-control, of disguising the expression on your face when you meet a dwarf." That is Billy Kwan for you. But let not his height be a give away. He understands the wayang (drama) that is unfolding in the country perfectly well. In addition to his impeccable contacts, he also maintains a dossier on almost all correspondents and key players in Indonesia.

Kwan not just opens the doors for Hamilton when it comes to the government; he also shows him the places and people he needs to meet to understand the full impact of the events in Indonesia. His disillusionment with his hero Sukarno propels him to encourage Hamilton report on the poverty and misery in Indonesia. By reporting about Indonesia beyond Jakarta, which Kwan firmly believes only Hamilton can do, driven as he by his fresh perspectives and his recent arrival in the country, Kwan hopes to fulfill his social responsibility. So it is that Kwan injects romance into the novel by ensuring that Hamilton continues to meet Jill Bryant who was introduced to him at a party. "Privacy was difficult to find in Jakarta," even though Jill happens to be the woman both he and Hamilton love.

With this begins the complex drama of loyalty and betrayal that is played out in the eye of a political storm. "Swift evening spreads across Jakarta….explosions, flames of overturned cars, satisfying smash of glass. Konfrantasi in action. Fear." Even as Hamilton acquires information about the dramatic changes that are taking place, Jill who has access to key information through her job at the British Embassy providing assistance to Colonel Ralph lets it slip that something "terribly important happened tonight".

It all happens as Jill apologises to Hamilton for being late. One thing leads to another. In this case love leads to trust that is only to be betrayed. Jill knows she would lose her job if the news leaked and lets Hamilton know of it as well. The news that she breaks up would end up breaking a lot of other things as well. Breaking news, breaking relationships.

So to prove she believes in Hamilton she lets this information slip: "Our Hong Kong people have passed on some information about a ship that’s just left Shanghai. Apparently, its on its way here with some secret consignment, courtesy of the Chinese Government." This only goes to reveal that the take-over has some major backing. Hamilton is thrilled with the news but disappointed that he cannot use it. Not for long though.

Jill tells him about the uprising and insists he leave the country with her. But Hamilton has a change of heart, the reporter speaks and he ends up leaking the information to the world. Despite the looming perils, he does not leave but moves up north to face mobs and find out more about the uprising. Here he ends up losing an eye when bashed in the face by a rifle weilding soldier.

In the end though there are happy endings as Hamilton gives up the biggest story for love. When the communist coup fails and the Indonesian military starts its infamous massacre of communists, Hamilton returns to his love and his child with a new vision of the future.


Daughters, difficult and defiant

Difficult Daughters by Manju Kapur. Penguin India, New Delhi. Pages 262. Rs 250

THE opening line of this novel is a steal. "The one thing I had wanted was not to be like my mother." This is Virmati’s daughter Ida speaking. Ida who is without a husband, child or parents. She is embarking on a voyage of discovery to find out more about her mother and the journey begins at Amritsar, a place she had always associated with her mother.

Manju Kapur’s sentimental story "Difficult Daughters" follows the journey of Virmati, a woman torn between family duty, who has the desire to study but is caught in the trap of illicit love and all this is happening to her at the time of partition. What better setting could one ask to tell the story of Virmati, who the author describes as strong, independent and as someone who knows exactly what she wants and how to go about getting it.

But first there is Kasturi, Virmati’s mother who was married off at a tender age. In a marriage spanning 17 years Kasturi bears 11 children, the eldest being Virmati, on whose shoulders the tough role of mothering for her siblings falls. While childbearing takes a toll on Kasturi’s health, child rearing, studying, managing household chores and being an arbitrator in the innumerable fights between her siblings takes a toll on Virmati.

A welcome break to Dalhousie to recuperate works well for both mother and daughter. It is here, in the midst of the hills and the quiet, watching the sun colouring the snow on the distant mountains of the Dhauladhar range that Virmati gets to know her cousin, Shakuntala Pehnji, better. A liberated woman of her time, Shakuntala lives in Lahore where she teaches. Virmati’s imagination is fired by the desire to be independent and like Shakuntala be able to wear what she wants to wear and not look around shyly for approval each time she spoke or acted.

With her as role model, a rather saddened Virmati returns to Amritsar as managing two separate households in two different places was proving to be a rather expensive proposition for her family. Back in Amritsar, when there is talk of getting a separate house for Kasturi and her growing brood, Virmati’s aunt also begins the battle for her rights and the patterns of a communal life are to be disturbed forever with separate houses for the two families.

The transition from Tarsikka to their new dwellings Leppel Griffin Road will also mark the beginning of tumultuous changes in Virmati’s life. It is here that her cousin Somnath finds tenants to rent a portion in his side of the family house. The arrival of the British educated professor who teaches English literature and who happens to fall hopelessly and helplessly in love with Virmati who also happens to be his student in college. To complicate matters, not only are the families different but the professor is already married and has a child from his first marriage. His wife dotes on him but the professor himself is driven to Virmati as he seems to be unable to carry on any conversation with his wife.

This leads to Virmati calling off her arranged marriage, attempting suicide and finally leaving Amritsar for Lahore to do her bachelors degree. But the professor follows her there and their rendezvous at his friend Syed Husain’s home leads to an untimely pregnancy followed by an abortion. Virmati is finally convinced that the professor is not interested in her. After getting her degree she agrees to take up the principal’s post at a girl’s school in Nahan. Here she throws herself wholeheartedly into her work and then again the professor surfaces leading to her untimely dismissal from the school.

Driven to desperation, Virmati again asks to be legally married or tells the professor to end the relationship forever. Finally, just as she has made all plans to leave for Santiniketan, there is a coerced marriage and Virmati finds herself trapped. The professor’s eventual marriage and installation of Virmati in his Amritsar house, next to his furious first wife, helps her towards the course of furthering her studies in Lahore but this is small consolation for her scandalised family who disown Virmati entirely.

Then there is partition and the pain and by the time the professor’s first wife finally leaves Amritsar for Lahore, Virmati has realised that she has created irrevocable lines of pain and partition around her.

While the well-researched novel begins well, Manju Kapur seems to be in a hurry to end the book. "Difficult Daughters" also falls flat in its attempt to portray Virmati as a woman who breaks rules and defies traditions to get something she always aspired for — independence. In the end all Virmati wants is to be the professor’s legally wedded wife and a happy home. Her daughter’s marriage ending up in a divorce and the deduction that being Virmati’s daughter meant such things could happen to her, just seem to be an over-simplistic deduction. On the whole, the book is a fairly interesting read though the story does tend to drag at times, especially when the exchange of letters between the two lovers is presented.

If Manju Kapur can pepper her text with a little more humour, her work will certainly be worth watching out for.