Saturday, 31 October 2009

Book Review: Paul Theroux's A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta


Paul Theroux is known primarily as a travel writer, though he has published many works of fiction. His latest book, ‘A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta’, is set in, well, Calcutta (Theroux does not even bother to explain why he prefers Calcutta to Kolkata) and though not a travelogue, benefits immensely from Theroux’s travel writing traits. Did Theroux make a trip to Kolkata just to get background material for this book or is it based on memories from an earlier one? I don’t know, but if it is the latter case, then Theroux has a fantastic memory.

The best thing about A Dead Hand is that one gets to see, hear, smell and touch Calcutta through Theroux. It is not always a pretty picture, but it is not particularly negative either. In any event, it is an honest, brutally honest, picture. Theroux makes his share of mistakes (a nanny is referred to by the South Indian ‘Amah’ rather than ‘Ayah’), and some of his ‘stories’, such as the one about a posh nanny who flaunts i-pods, drugs her young charge and makes money begging with the child at a traffic intersection when she is supposed to be walking the child in the park, don’t ring true to an Indian ear. I doubt if any Indian beggar, even one with a drugged child drooling at the lips, would make enough money from begging to buy an i-pod and drugs. Despite such minor hitches, Theroux’s Calcutta tales are splendidly narrated and mostly sound authentic. His reproduction of Indian English as spoken in Calcutta makes it sound lyrical and sweet and Theroux almost gets it right (I think). I mean, I am sure that there are at least a few Indians in Calcutta who speak the way Theroux has imagined them to speak.

The story is narrated by an American writer, Jerry Delfont, who is in Kolkata to give lectures arranged by the American consulate. Having finished his lectures, Delfont has writer’s block and is trying to kill time. He is easily persuaded by pretty, rich, charming, middle-aged and tantric American Merrill Unger to stay on in Calcutta and investigate a dead body which turned up in a cheap hotel where Merrill’s son’s friend Rajat was staying. Merrill is a colourful and exciting personality and the detection of the murderer is as much about understanding Merrill as it is about solving the crime. Theroux shows his readers the various faces of Merrill, each as fascinating as the next. He tells us about Merrill’s past in bits and pieces that provide various contrasting facets, which add up to create a complex, but still incomplete picture.

Finally, just to make sure his readers don’t assume Jerry Delfont is Theroux himself, Paul Theroux makes a cameo appearance and chats briefly with Delfont!

Who is responsible for the murder? Since Theroux devotes so much time and space on Merrill, one is forced to wonder if Merrill is responsible, though she had called on Theroux to investigate the crime. Or is it Rajat, Merrill’s son’s friend in whose hotel room the body initially turned up? Or is it Merrill’s son Chalmers? Theroux keeps his readers guessing till the end. Do read this wonderful book to find out if you want to know who did it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Booker Prize 2009 Goes to........

The Booker Prize for 2009 has just been announced. Wolf Hall written by Hilary Mantel and published by HarperCollins, Fourth Estate, is the winner. I had reviewed it a few days ago.

Here are links to my reviews of four of the other shortlisted books:
Summertime by J M Coetzee(Random House, Harvill Secker)
The Quickening Maze by (Random House, Jonathan Cape)
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Little, Brown, Virago)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


Henry the VIII’s England was a cruel and nasty place. It was a land where death came very fast, where the summer plague carried off many victims every year, where one could be burned at the stake for one’s belief. Reading the Bible in English (rather than in Latin) was a capital offence. Important men like Sir Thomas More wore hair shirts to punish themselves for their sins and earn merit in the eyes of God. The Tudor era was also a time of social mobility, when a butcher’s son or a blacksmith’s boy could become a cardinal or a lawyer. It was a period when trade with continental Europe flourished and the wind of reform initiated by Martin Luther blew into England.

Thomas must have been the most popular name during the Tudor era. There was a Thomas Wolsey, a Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer and a Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall is primarily Thomas Cromwell’s story, though the other three Thomases and the swashbuckling Henry the VIII play vital roles.

Thomas Cromwell is the son of a Putney blacksmith who thinks nothing of hitting his son on the head with a big block of wood (we are not too sure of this since the blow comes from behind) and then repeatedly kicking him, putting the victim, young Thomas, at risk of suffocating on his own vomit. Cromwell moves on, an inch at a time and gets to his sister’s place and sanctuary. Mantel turns the pages very fast and shows us a Cromwell who has become a lawyer and is the chief advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is rapidly falling out of favour with Henry the VIII since it is unable to get him a papal divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who bore him a series of children all of whom, except a sickly girl May, die very young. Henry is besotted with the scheming and wily Anne Boleyn and is also obsessed with the idea of having a male heir. All the people surrounding Henry (with the exception of Thomas More) want him to get what he wants – namely a divorce, their own progress depends on Henry doing well. Henry has convinced himself that he is legally entitled to a divorce. After all, he had married his brother Arthur’s wife and the Bible (Leviticus) does frown on such a practice and a special papal dispensation had been necessary for his first marriage to take place.

Wolsey is unable to deliver the divorce mainly because the Pope is practically a prisoner of other political powers and England’s relationship with such powers is frosty. However, Wolsey is removed from his post and dies on his way to his execution. Cromwell, totally amoral and very liberal, soon becomes Henry’s Chief Minister and chief advisor and plays a key role in breaking up with Rome and setting up the Church of England.

Hilary Mantel tells the story of Thomas Cromwell from 1527 to 1535, stopping much before Cromwell’s or even Anne Boleyn’s execution, using language that sounds so authentic that you are immediately transported to the England of the 1500s. Tudor history is well known and Mantel assumes that you have paid attention to your history lessons while at school and makes no effort to keep the story simple – the cast list alone runs to five pages. Wolf Hall is post-history story telling at its best, though this 650 page tome makes very slow reading, forcing the reader to pause every once in a while to absorb before moving on.

Mantel takes pains to show Cromwell as the exact opposite of Thomas More, who has at times (especially in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons), been depicted as a saint. A very reputed scholar and a man considered very intelligent, More is shown to be straitjacketed, especially in matters of faith, whilst Cromwell is open to persuasion from all sides. Cromwell is all along shown as a man who looks after himself and his family, unlike Thomas More who is shown as being nasty to his own children. Thomas More replaces Cardinal Wolsey as the Lord Chancellor, though his opposition to the split with Rome and Henry VIII’s divorce costs him his head. Cromwell tries to persuade More to change his mind, but ultimately plays a role in the trial that orders his execution.

In Mantel’s hands, Cromwell who has at times been described as cunning and calculating, comes across as a warm and open hearted liberal who unashamedly looks after his own welfare. For example, Mantel describes Thomas Cromwell’s abilities thus:

His legal practice is thriving, and he is able to lend money at interest, and arrange bigger loans, on the international market, taking a broker’s fee. The market is volatile - the news from Italy is never too good two days together – but as some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened, he has an eye for risk. A number of noblemen are indebted to him, not just for arranging loans, but for making their estates pay better. It is not a matter of exactions from tenants, but, in the first place, giving the landowner an accurate survey of land values, crop yield, water supply, built assets, and then assessing the potential of all these, next putting in bright people as estate managers, and with them setting up an accounting system that makes yearly sense and can be audited. Among the city merchants, he is in demand for his advice on trading partners overseas. He has a sideline in arbitration commercial disputes mostly, as his ability to assess the facts of a case and give a swift impartial decision is trusted here, in Calais and in Antwerp. If you and your opponent can at least concur on the need to save costs and delays of a court hearing, then Cromwell is, for a fee, your man; and he has the pleasant privilege, often enough, of sending away both sides happy.”

Cromwell is a man who can hide his anger and get along with people who are nasty to him, such the Dukes of Norfolk or Suffolk, so that he can get what he wants. Thomas More describes Cromwell’s character thus: “lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.” This description reminded me of Cark Gable/Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind playing cards with his jailers, though I don’t think rough and ready Cromwell was half as good looking as Clark Gable.

Cromwell gets along with Thomas Cranmer, the Boleyns’ family priest who has a few children on the side. No, Cromwell, does not pretend to like Cranmer who later ends up as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he actually likes him, especially the fact that he can’t control his desires despite being a priest.

The book is named after Wolf Hall, residence of Jane Seymour who was Henry’s third wife and succeeded Anne Boleyn. The reader is never taken to Wolf Hall, though it is referred to very often and ultimately, Thomas Cromwell is shown to be headed towards Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is one of the six books shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2009 and is the bookies’ favourite to win the Booker.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters


I have never been a fan of ghost stories and I started to read The Little Stranger for two reasons only. One because it is on the Booker Prize shortlist for 2009 and secondly because until now, all of Waters’s books have had gay and lesbian themes and I thought a shift from gay/lesbianism to ghosts sounded very interesting, if not challenging. To be honest, Waters had already started drifting away from gay and lesbian themes in her fourth novel, The Night Watch, which preceded The Little Stranger and is set in the 1940s. Like all her other novels, The Little Stranger is a ‘period story’ and is set in the period just after the Second World War. Though a ghost story, The Little Stranger is as much about English society after the War and the changes to the English class system, as it is about ghosts.

Using a GP as her narrator, Waters’ tells us the story of the Ayreses who live in the Hundreds Hall in rural Warwickshire. At one point, the Ayreses had wealth and social standing. When the story begins, they only have the latter and we see Roderick, the only male left in the Ayres family struggle with his bills as well as his war wounds. Roddy’s sister Caroline, an intelligent, but plain girl, does a substantial amount of manual work in the farm and in the household. The mother Mrs. Ayres has seen much better days and would like to keep up appearances.

Dr. Faraday the narrator is a middle-aged doctor who comes from red-blooded working class stock – his mother was a maid at the Hundreds Hall many years ago. In fact, Dr. Faraday has been to Hundreds Hall as a kid for an Empire Day function, when he was allowed into the big house as a treat. Dr. Faraday is now a GP who has not done spectacularly well for himself. He is called out to Hundreds to treat the maid Betty who has started working there very recently. Betty is faking a tummy ache and Faraday latches on, though he doesn’t snitch on her. That there is something very wrong with Hundreds Hall becomes apparent very early on, though Waters takes her time to build up the tempo before she makes it clear that the place is haunted.

Waters also takes her time in telling her readers officially that there is a spark between Dr. Faraday and Caroline, though most readers will start wondering very early on why Dr. Faraday doesn’t woo Caroline when he admires her so much. It is only when one reaches the halfway mark of this 500 page tome that one see Dr. Faraday and Caroline make the moves. Even after the spark is officially lit, it flickers and even disappears for certain stretches, despite all around approval for the match.

Even though ghost stories don’t appeal to me, I really enjoyed The Little Stranger, mainly because Waters devotes a considerable amount of effort and space in building up the atmosphere and the characters. It’s not just the main characters (who are few in number) who sound and smell authentic. Even the peripheral ones come across as genuine 1940s vintage.

Whilst telling us the story of a possible ghost, Waters tackles a host of social issues ranging from landowners’ resentment towards Atlee’s Labour government, the introduction of the National Health Service, lack of social mobility (in those days) etc. For someone not familiar with post-war England, The Little Stranger is full of surprises. Food is rationed and even the well-off struggle to buy food. To buy clothes, you need clothes coupons. Dr. Faraday uses up all his coupons to buy a wedding dress for Caroline. Gas is rationed as well, though Dr. Faraday is able to drive everywhere he wants to, since he is a GP. One gathers that there was no law against drink driving in those days since Dr. Faraday gets puking drunk on more than one occasion and drives home without a care in the world.

Waters's story telling skill is so very good that my interest never flagged while reading this tome. After the Ghost’s presence was more or less confirmed (around Page 300 or so), Waters’ did get me to sit of the edge of my sofa for the rest of the book.

Does the romance between Dr. Faraday and Caroline come to a successful conclusion? Is the Ghost laid to a peaceful repose for eternity, as many ghost stories do? Does the Hundreds Hall regain its past glory? Do read this wonderful book to find out.

The Little Stranger has been shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which will be announced on 6 October 2009. Waters has been shortlisted for a Booker twice in the past. Though I am not sure if a ghost story has ever won the Booker Prize, there is a very good possibility that Waters will be third time lucky in 2009.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Book Review: The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds


There are very few sane characters in The Quickening Maze. Charles Seymour is one. Locked up at the behest of his father at the High Beach Private Asylum, a lunatic asylum run by Doctor Mathew Allen who is relatively progressive for his time, Charles’ refusal to renounce his unsuitable lady love is the only thing that prevents him from being released. The intelligent and accomplished Doctor Allen, the father of three girls, is not so very sane himself. Despite having gone to prison in the past (on account of debt), Mathew goes ahead with a very reckless scheme for mass producing furniture using a steam-driven machine invented by him. Persuading friends and patients to invest in his venture, the energetic Dr. Allen makes much headway till he realises that his scheme will not work.

John Clare (13 July 1793 – 20 May 1864), who was during his time known as the "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet" is the leading character in this novel. Lord Alfred Tennyson also has an important role. Clare is mad. Tennyson isn’t, though his brother Septimus and many of his family members are. Clare is the son of a farm labourer with limited education, a man who is so used to living with nature that he finds it intolerable when he is locked up and cut off from forests and wildlife. Tennyson is not particularly concerned with nature. He is at the High Beach Private Asylum solely to take care of his brother Septimus. Tennyson ends up investing in Dr. Allen’s mad venture.

There are many more individuals in The Quickening Maze, many of whom are insane and a few of whom like Dr. Allen’s wife, daughters and helpers are very much sane. All of them have their characters built up and described in very beautiful prose that is very economical and judicious with its use of words. Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, within which the High Beach Private Asylum is located, is one of those characters brought to life by Foulds. Since Foulds is a splendid poet who won the Costa Poetry Award in 2008, The Quickening Maze definitely has a lyrical touch at all times. However, the poetic touch never goes overboard.

One of the things I didn’t like about the Quickening Maze is that it has many characters and Foulds switches from one to another at a breakneck speed, leaving the reader a bit bewildered and even insane at times. Maybe it’s intentional. Another feature I didn’t like is that Foulds does not tell his readers what happens to his various characters. We see Clare slipping into greater insanity, at times imagining himself to be a prize fighter, at times to be Lord Byron. Is there any escape for Clare? We won’t know from this novel. What happens to Alfred Tennyson? Hannah, one of Dr. Allen’s daughters, has an innocent crush on Tennyson and pines away for him. Does she succeed? The reader never finds out. However, Foulds does tell us what happens to Charles Seymour, a man locked up so that he can be cured of his love. Do read this wonderful book to find out.

The Quickening Maze is Fould’s second novel. The first one, The Truth About These Strange Times, won the 2008 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award. The Quickening Maze has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009, which will be announced on 6 October 2009. In my opinion, this novel has a decent chance of winning the Booker.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Book Review: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer


By the time I finished reading Simon Mawer’s Glass Room, not only was I conscious of having read a fine piece of literature, I was also convinced that Mawer is as good, if not better, than pulp fiction writers like Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham in packing mystery and suspense inside a novel. Before I say anything further, let me confess that I am big fan of fiction with a historical base. The Glass Room, set in Czechoslovakia from the period after the end of the First World War till the time when communism started to collapse in Eastern Europe, is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I have ever read.

There are many characters in the Glass Room, but it would not be possible to point anyone as the most important person in the story. Viktor Landauer, a Jewish businessman who owns a motor car manufacturing business is definitely one of the main characters, as is his Gentile German wife Liesel. Viktor and Liesel commission a German architect, Rainer von Abt, to build their dream house on the land gifted to them by Liesel’s father as a wedding gift. Believing that ornamentation is a waste, if not a crime, the Glass Room is built as a tribute to modernism, without any ounce of ornamentation and as a symbol of a clean break with the past. The story revolves around the Glass Room throughout, even after the Laundeurs flee from the Nazis and escape to the United States through Switzerland.

The Nazis convert the Glass Room into a laboratory where experiments are carried out on human beings. Here’s a conversation between Stahl, a German doctor, who heads the team that carries out research on human specimens in the Glass Room and Hana, Liesel’s closest friend who has stayed on. Stahl is explaining how his daughter Erika contracted infantile amaurotic congenital idiocy when she was very young.

He sits there in the Glass Room among the trappings of scientific measurement, in the pure proportions of the place, and talks of irrationality and senselessness. ‘It’s to do with a chemical, a particular kind of fat that the body makes when it shouldn’t. It accumulates in the brain and somehow turns the nerve cells off, that’s what the specialists say. It’s what’s called an inborn error of metabolism. Inside me, inside every cell in my body there is this genetic mutation. Recessive. You need one from each parent before you have the disease.’
‘So Hedda had it too.’
‘Of course she did. The same mutation, running in our family, but brought together by our union.’ He pauses. ‘It’s one of the Jew diseases.’
‘A Jew disease? Is there such a thing?’
‘Jews particularly suffer from it, along with many other diseases of that kind. Degeneracy, you see. They are a degenerate people.’
‘And does having it make you a Jew?’
‘It doesn’t make me a Jew, but some Jew introduced the disease into the family four generations ago. A great-great-grandfather. That is what I believe.’
She comes over from the windows and stands beside the piano. ’And the baby? When was this? I mean, is the baby still_’
‘Do you know how such children die? Finally they lose the ability to swallow. You try to feed them but they just choke everything up. Either they starve to death or they die of pneumonia. There is nothing anyone can do. Nothing.’
‘And that’s what happened?’
‘No, that’s not what happened.’


After the Nazis are overthrown and the proletariat takes over, the Glass Room becomes a gymnasium. The original owners are never forgotten by Mawer and towards the end of the book, one gets to see them again. Not only that, many loose ends are tied up in the final thirty pages or so of this absolutely wonderful book. I wouldn’t want to say any more and spoil the fun for those who read this review.

There were a few bits I didn’t like, such as when Kata Katalin ends up in the Landauer residence, aka the Glass Room, after she becomes a refugee. However, such instances are very few and far in between and are within Mawer’s author’s licence.

To summarise, this is an absolutely brilliant book. There is suspense, there is violence, there is eroticism, there is history, all of which is tied together by Mawer’s brilliant writing. The Glass Room is one of the six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009 and is, in my view, a very strong contender for the trophy.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Review: Summertime: Scenes from Provincial Life by J. M. Coetzee


Unlike a biography, an autobiography requires the author to analyse himself. The degree and nature of analysis determines how interesting the story will turns out to be. In M.K. Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth, the author sets out facts in a gentle and undulating manner, interspersing facts with explanations. There are admissions of failures and of mistakes made, of weak moments and errors of judgements. Unlike Gandhi, J.M.Coetze takes self analysis to an extreme in his latest book Summertime, a fictionalised autobiography and third in a trilogy which began with Boyhood and Youth. By using the services of one Vincent, a biographer who wants to hear all about Coetzee from various sources so that he can pen Coetzee’s tale, Summertime examines Coetzee’s adult life from various angles and paints a very unflattering picture of himself.

There are stories from Julia, a married woman with whom Coetzee had an affair, from Margot, a cousin whom Coetzee wanted to marry when he was young, Adriana, a Brazilian lady whose daughter took English lessons from Coetzee and from Martin and Sophie, two colleagues with whom Coetzee worked. In addition to these sources, there are extracts from Coetzee’s diaries. With tales from all these sources, as narrated to Vincent, Coetzee paints a self portrait that is so ruthless that you don’t even feel sorry for the author.

John Coetzee is shown as a misfit, always ill at ease, shy and reserved, without any friends, a man in need of a decent haircut. Despite all this, Coetzee does not come across as a man who deserves any sympathy, though he is shown as a loser, time and again. For example, with cousin Margot, Coetzee goes on a long drive across the veldt in his pickup truck and the engine conks off in the middle of nowhere. Coetzee and Margot are forced to spend the night inside the truck, hugging each other to keep themselves warm. This is the same Margot whom Coetzee hoped to marry when he was young. Margot doesn’t feel anything for Coetzee, though they are alone and hugging each other to sleep. It could be because Margot is happily married to someone else. However, in Margot’s own words, ‘why is there no male aura about him? Does the fault lie with him or on the contrary, does it lie with her, who has so wholeheartedly absorbed the taboo that she cannot think of him as a man? If he has no woman, is that because he has no feeling for women, and therefore women, herself included, respond by having no feeling for him? Is her cousin, if not a moffie, then a eunuch?

The reader knows that Coetzee has feelings for women, that he has had affairs before, that he still loves Margot. We know that he is not a moffie (a derogatory Afrikaans term for a gay man) or an enuch. No, Coetzee is just not man enough for Margot.

Time and again, Coetzee fails to make an impression on the people he meets, despite having very strong convictions and views on issues ranging from animal rights to vegetarianism to apartheid. Coetzee’s convictions and ideology make him stand out from the crowd at all times, however. For example, Coetzee believes that white South Africans ought to do manual labour rather than rely on hired black helpers. For this reason, he tries to maintain his pick-up truck himself, does all repairs to his house himself, learns Khoi, a Hottentot dialect which is not spoken by anyone else etc. None of these activities manage to win him brownie points with anyone except maybe his own father, who lives with him and is portrayed in an equally pathetic light.

I have been a Coetzee fan ever since I read Disgrace which won Coetzee a second Booker in 1999. Coetzee is one of two individuals who have won the Booker twice. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Summertime has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize which is to be announced on 6 October 2009. If Coetzee wins a Booker for Summertime, he will be the only author to have won a Booker three times.

I really enjoyed Summertime. Like his other books, it is dry, sparse, to the point and cruel. However, I doubt if it will win the Booker.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Book Review: My Friend Sancho


Amit Varma is a blogger I admire a lot. Like many tens of thousands of Indians, I get withdrawal symptoms if I can’t check his blog Indiauncut at least once every day. The symptoms are equally bad if Varma doesn’t update his blog daily. Of late, Varma hasn’t been posting as regularly as he once used to. The culprit behind this disaster is Varma’s debut novel My Friend Sancho (MFS), published by Hachette India. I happened to read MFS recently

More a novella than a novel (since by my own reckoning it doesn’t exceed 40,000 words), MFS is the story of an ambitious reporter (not unlike Varma who once used to be a journalist till he turned to full-time blogging) named Abir Ganguly who also happens to be an Indiauncut fan. Using a simple, but very realistic, plot and uncluttered English that gets to the nub of the matter without prevarication, Varma tells us a tale that has shades of Love Story in it. MFS is a very good read and Varma easily held my attention effortlessly for the entire journey.

Varma makes no bones about the fact that his only objective is to entertain and that he has no lofty literary pretensions. In the beginning of the book, Abir has a conversation with his boss, which goes on as follows:

“So what kind of stories do you want to write for us, young man?”
“You tell me, sir.”
“No, you tell me. I want to see what you want to do first.”
“Sir, um, I want to do the kind of stories that reveal, um, what this city is all about.”
“What is this city all about?”
“Sir, um, this city, sir, has, um, lots of struggle, and life is hard, and...”
“Enough!”
“Um?”
“Enough. Do you watch movies?”
“Yes sir.”
“Do you watch sports?”
“Yes sir.”
“Why?”
“Er...”
“I'll tell you why. Because you want drama. Our lives are boring, so we want drama everywhere. That is why we gossip. That is why we peek into our neighbour's houses. That is why we watch movies, watch sports. That is why readers buy The Afternoon Mail. Drama! Now, I want you to understand one thing.”
“Yes sir.”
“Your job, as a reporter, is to find drama. People want story: conflict, love, action, violence, sadness, regret. Give them story. You know that old cliché of 'dog bites man' and 'man bites dog'? I want 'man bites dog'. Every story you write must be 'man bites dog'. Drama!”


Recently Varma posted an article giving blogging tips for aspiring bloggers. Value your reader’s time; Keep your English simple; Focus on the content rather than use ornamental language. These are some of Varma’s commandments. Varama is obviously one of those teachers who practice what they preach since MFS follows all these rules and is a lesson is English writing for all aspiring writers who are not native speakers of English.

However, the most outstanding feature of MFS is also its main drawback. Since Varma obviously believes that his reader’s time is very valuable and that readers are fickle creatures who will drop his book and wander away at the slightest slack in his writing and because Varma believes that his readers want pure unadulterated entertainment that doesn’t require the exercise of grey cells and nothing else, MFS is crammed with sarcasm, cynicism and WTFness that are so very familiar to Indiauncut readers. Such writing is, in my opinion, very much appropriate for blogging on the internet where readers have so many distractions and moving to a different web page is so very easy. However, when reading a book one has bought for a few hundred rupees, a reader can be expected to be a bit more faithful. At times I did find Varma’s attention grabbing tactics distracting. I believe that if Varma hadn’t been so worried about keeping his readers entertained by every word he wrote, if every word wasn’t expected to count, MFS would have been a much better read.

Another drawback (or flaw) in MFS is that Varma doesn’t do justice to Muneeza, Abir’s love interest in the story. Muneeza is shown as having had a traditional (Indian Muslim) upbringing, but displays streaks of rebellion and independence. If properly developed, Muneeza could have been a very interesting character. However, readers are given a hasty and one-dimensional view of Muneeza.

Varma’s writing can only get better, provided Varma stops worrying that his readers will run away if a single word in his work fails to entertain.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Book Review: Arzee the Dwarf


Chandrahas Choudhury is a very well-known blogger within Indian literary circles. His blog, The Middle Stage, is in my opinion, one of the finest literary blogs on the World Wide Web. Having followed the Middle Stage for the last few years, I was pretty sure that Choudhury’s debut novel would be very good. I turned out to be wrong. Arzee the Dwarf is not just very good, it is outstanding.

Published by Harper Collins, Arzee the Dwarf tells the story of a vertically challenged man for a few turbulent days of his life. Arzee works for a cinema, the old fashioned and moth eaten Noor as an assistant projectionist. One of Arzee’s dreams is to become the head projectionist, an event that is not so much out of reach since Phiroz, the head projectionist, is old and close to retirement. Another dream is to get married to an ordinary girl not afflicted with dwarfism. Using beautiful prose that is almost poetic and which pushes your imagination to stratospheric heights, without using a single redundant word, Choudhury floats Arzee to the peak of happiness and then drops him into a valley of despair before he brings out a banner of hope. Do Arzee’s dreams materialise?

Set almost entirely in Old Mumbai, in and around Breach Candy, Grant Road, Mumbai Central, Khar Road, Jogeshwari etc, a geography where Choudhury is entirely at home, Arzee the Dwarf makes its readers walk over rotting garbage, wade through dirty puddles, smell Arzee’s foul armpits and bad breath, all the while entranced by Choudhury’s golden yarn.

There are surprises galore. What is taken for granted by the reader is turned over and made to stand on its head, time and again. The linkages that lead from one significant development to another all almost entirely realistic and even where they are not, Choudhury is very much within his creative licence. One of the best things about Arzee the Dwarf is that each one of Choudhury’s main characters is out of the ordinary, eccentric even, but very, very real. Choudhury’s characterisation, in my opinion, takes Arzee the Dwarf close to magical realism.

If at all there can be any grievance about Arzee the Dwarf, it is that Choudhury could have told us more about some of his secondary characters, having piqued our curiosity sufficiently about them. For example, I would have liked to know more about Phiroz’s daughter or Arzee’s brother Mobin. However, Choudhury gets one so close and personal to Arzee and other main characters such as Deepak and Phiroz, that this drawback doesn’t register till a few hours after one has put down the book.

Arzee the Dwarf runs to around fifty five thousand words (by my own estimate). It is not only ‘unputdownable’, but also does something most books by Indian authors fail to do. It makes its reader smile frequently, even when the protagonist is not doing very well for himself. At times, the smile turns to a chuckle. But don’t worry, there is no danger of you laughing uproariously when reading this book.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Syrian Christians, Brahmin Ancestors and St. Thomas

The Syrian Christians of Kerala form a caste that is as distinctive as any other in India. Within this caste, there are many sects. Syrian Christians may be Syrian Catholics or Jacobites or Orthodox or Marthomites or even Anglican Christians. Syrian Catholics owe allegiance to the Pope in Rome, the Jacobites to the Patriarch (or Bava) based in Antioch (modern day Turkey), the Orthodox Syrian Christians to a Catholicos based at Devalokam in Kottayam, Kerala, the Marthomites to a Metropolitan based at Thiruvalla in Kerala and the Anglicans to the Archbishop at Canterbury.

Most (but not all) Syrian Christians, irrespective of their sect, have two pet beliefs. One is that each and every Syrian Christian is descended from a Namboodiri or Keralite Brahmin convert to Christianity. The other belief is that their ancestors were converted by St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, who reached Kerala in the year 52 A.D.

I use the word ‘belief’ for the notions I have mentioned above, because that’s just what they are.

The first belief, that all Syrian Christians have a Brahmin heritage, was never taken too seriously by historians or other experts. I remember reading a book by Sheila Chandra many years ago (I can’t lay hands on this book now) which explains in detail why this is a ridiculous idea.

Recently Varkey Cardinal Vidayathil, the senior most Catholic clergy man in Kerala and one of the cardinals in the Papal conclave which elected Pope Benedict XVI, was interviewed by author Shinie Antony for a Rupa anthology on Kerala titled ‘Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary’ (which by the way has one of my short stories titled ‘A Matter of Faith’). Cardinal Vidayathil’s interview is published in this anthology in the form of an article titled ‘Stone the Sin, Not the Sinner.’ In this piece, the Cardinal says that the theories about the Brahminical origin of Syrian Christians are baseless and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

The second belief is that St. Thomas visited the land, which is now called Kerala, and converted a number of Namboodiris (Brahmins of Kerala) to Christianity. According to this belief, St. Thomas did not seek or make converts from any other caste. Anyone with a basic idea of either Indian history or Christian ethos will realise why this sounds very ridiculous. If at all St. Thomas visited India, he is unlikely to have been casteist and would not have focussed only on the upper castes. After all, wasn’t Christ’s mission all about helping the poor and the down-trodden?

Unlike other disciples like Peter or Mathew or Luke, not much is known about the early life of St. Thomas, that is, his life before he became a disciple of Jesus. In fact, it is not even clear if ‘Thomas’ was his real name. ‘Thomas’ means ‘twin’ in Aramaic and it was most probably just a nickname. It is well known that Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen and that Mathew was a tax collector. If St. Peter were to have visited India, you can be sure that he would have had a special message for fisher folk, though he is very unlikely to have interacted only with the fisher folk. If St. Thomas had been the son of a rabbi, he might have found it easier to converse with the learned Namboodiris, but he is very unlikely to have focussed only on them.

Secondly, if you subscribe to the Aryan migration/invasion theory, which I do, the migrant Namboodiris made their way to Kerala only by around the 7th century. If there were no Namboodiris in Kerala two thousand years ago, St. Thomas is unlikely to have converted them to Christianity.

It is also a matter for debate whether St. Thomas visited Kerala in the first place. Even though Syrian Christian tradition fervently believes that St. Thomas did visit Kerala, Christian scholars and western historians are yet to agree on this. A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI created a controversy when, while addressing a vast crowd at the St Peter’s square, he stated that “Thomas first evanglised Syria and Persia and then penetrated as far as western India from where Christianity reached also south India”. In other words, according to Pope Benedict XVI, St. Thomas never visited or evangelised Kerala, but only visited the land which is now Pakistan and if at all Christianity spread to Kerala, it was from north India.

Pope Benedict VI’s statement caused a furore in Kerala. George Nedungatt, a Keralite scholar based in Rome, declared that the Pope’s statement was tantamount to declaring that St. Thomas was the 'Apostle of Pakistan', rather than that of India. George Nedungatt is a faculty member of the Oriental Pontifical Institute, Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI, despite various shortcomings, is a scholar and a theologian. He is the first Pope to seriously question the belief that St. Thomas visited and evangelised Kerala. Prior to that most Popes had towed the populist line without actually affirming that St. Thomas was in Kerala. For example, in 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote that the Syro-Malabar church of Kerala "as the constant tradition holds, owed its origin to the preaching of Apostle St Thomas."

It is a fact that when the Portuguese arrived in India, they found Christianity already in existence in Kerala. It was an Indianised form of Christianity, barely differentiable from Hinduism. Jesus was yet another God in the Indian pantheon of Gods. The Portuguese didn’t like what they saw, especially the fact that the Christians owed allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox Church which had its head quarters and a bishop in Antioch (then a part of the Ottoman empire, now in modern day Turkey) and that the mass was recited in Syriac or Aramaic (hence the name Syrian Christians). The Portuguese, using a mix of force and persuasion, managed to convert many of the Syrian Christians to Catholicism. Those converts became Syrian Catholics and switched allegiance from the Patriarch in Antioch to the Pope in Rome, though their mass continued to be in Syriac. Till 1965 when the Second Vatican Council decided to allow mass in the vernacular, Syrian Catholics continued to have their mass in Syriac, while other converts to Catholicism used Latin. Since almost all those converted from Hinduism to Christianity by the Portuguese were lower castes, in Kerala, Latin Christians came to be classified as a backward class, which Syrian Christians, supposedly the descendants of Namboodiris, were treated as upper castes.

Syrian Christians have always occupied a very high position in Keralite society. Those who believe in a Brahminical lineage would say that this status is because all Syrian Christians are Namboodiri converts. However, it is very likely that the initial converts to Christianity came from a variety of backgrounds, but because of their ties with the traders who converted them, were much more commercial and hence prosperous and respected. Over a period of time, before the arrival of the Portuguese, they must have coalesced into a monolithic community.

Despite pressure to switch to the Catholic faith and the Pope in Rome, many Syrian Christians refused to tow the Portuguese line and continued to owe allegiance to the Patriarch in Antioch. In 1653, a number of them took a public oath at a place called Koonan Cross or Koonan Kurisu to defy the Portuguese and to persist with the Syrian rites and liturgy. This section, now called the Jacobites, have seen various splits in their ranks in the last two hundred years.

In 1836, a reformist movement arose within the Jacobite Church, which sought autonomy from the Patriarch at Antioch. This movement eventually led to the formation of what is now called the Malankara Marthoma Syrian Church. As mentioned above, the Marthomite church is headed by a Metropolitan based at Thiruvalla in Kerala.

In 1879, missionaries from Church Mission Society of London (part of the Anglican Church) established a branch of the Church of England in Kerala. Many Jacobites and a few Syrian Catholics joined this Church which is now called the Church of South India (CSI). However, most members of the CSI Church are direct converts from Hinduism.

In 1911, Bishop Wattessril Mor Dionysius led a group of Jacobites, mainly from southern Kerala, who broke off from the Jacobite church and formed the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church which doesn’t have any ties to the patriarch at Antioch. Instead, they report to a Catholicos of the East based at Devalokam in Kottayam, Kerala,

On 20 September 1930, Bishop Mar Ivanios broke off from the Jacobites and joined the Catholic Church. The Jacobites who thus became Catholics form the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which can be described as a semi-autonomous church within the Catholic Church.

Apologies for having digressed, but to get back to the issue as to whether St. Thomas did visit Kerala, the answer is, ‘we don’t know for sure’. However, we do know that Christianity has been in existence in India, especially in Kerala, much before the arrival of the Portuguese. In all probability, Christianity arrived in Kerala along with the spice trade that has been going on for many millennia. It is an accepted fact that a bunch of Christians from Syria came to Kerala in the 4th century and settled there. This community which is called the Knanaya (meaning “of Canaan”) community, did not co-mingle or blend with the native population, whether or not there were any Christians in Kerala at that time. It practised and still practices purity laws akin to that of the Parsis whereby anyone who marries outside the community is ostracised.

Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, the Syrian Christians of Kerala, not only owed allegiance to the Patriarch at Antioch, they also had pretty good cultural exchanges with other Syrian Christians elsewhere in Asia Minor.

None of this however can prove or disprove whether St. Thomas did visit Kerala.

It is understandable that many Syrian Christians were upset by Pope Benedict’s statement that St. Thomas never visited Kerala. I would like to see Syrian Christians take the view that it doesn’t matter whether St. Thomas visited Kerala or not. Christianity is supposed to be an egalitarian religion. One converted by St. Thomas can’t be superior to one converted by a common trader from Asia Minor or someone else. However, as a matter of curiosity, I would like to see historians establish the truth one way or the other, in my lifetime that is.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Short Story: Just A Little Boy

The news passed quickly through the entire front line that stretched, at places three deep, sturdy and strong and at places, ragged and thin with breaches in between, from Kilaly to Muhamalai to Nagar Kovil. Subhash heard two of his men, or rather boys, talk about it and shook his head. It was as if a bucket of cold water had been dumped on all of them! Kilinochchi had fallen to the enemy! They had let Annai down! If only they all had done their jobs well, this wouldn’t have happened. Annai would be ashamed of them. Well, it was not such a big surprise, was it? Ever since Paranthan had fallen on New Year’s eve, they knew that Kilinochchi didn’t stand a chance. Now Elephant Pass was bound to be taken as well. Of course they would bounce back. They had done that so many times before, hadn’t they? They would struggle even harder, make even more sacrifices and ultimately win! Subhash believed as much as any one else in the Movement that their struggle would be successful.

The firing had ceased for the moment, but Subhash knew that the next attack could start anytime. They never stopped, did they? It had been like this for many months now. There was a time when it was the other way around, when they were on the offensive and the army sat cowering in its bunkers, something many of the young lads fighting with him had never known. Ah! What wouldn’t he do to get back the feeling he had experienced when they captured Elephant Pass! No, it didn’t matter. So long as Annai led them, they couldn’t lose. Their peerless National Leader was better than every other military leader in the world. Provided they all lived up to his expectations, Eelam was bound to be a reality, sooner than later. Right now, it was obvious that they weren’t doing so.

‘I’ll be back in a while,’ Subhash told the three lads who were with him in his bunker, which was more like a tunnel through the bund, ran down to the base of the bund and walked over to where Amuthan was likely to be. He took care to crouch and keep his head low. The other day, one of the boys had been killed by a sniper’s bullet during such a lull when he stood up to take a leak. There was a small hillock just over a kilometre away, dotted with tall trees. If there were snipers targeting them, they would be on those trees. If only he could, he would have lobbed a few shells at that hillock and knocked down those trees. However he could only dream of lobbing shells right now. Most of the lads from the Kutti Sri Mortar Unit and Kittu Artillery Unit who had been with them for so many months had gone off to defend Kilinochchi a few weeks ago. God knew if they were still alive, now that Kilinochchi had fallen. They still had a few mortars and artillery pieces left, but Colonel Bhanu was saving them for an actual attack.

If Leo were still alive, he would have got Leo to fire a few RPGs at the hillock. Leo was a genius, an artist, a man who could fire an RPG at a target that was at the outer limit of the RPG’s range and cause the shell to explode on top of the target, rather than hit it. It was such a pity that Leo had left this world before they could realise their homeland. He did have a few RPGs, but in the absence of Leo there was little sense in firing them from such a distance. The retaliatory fire that the flash of the RPG usually invited tilted the cost-benefit analysis against its use.

Amuthan was lying on the ground, his eyes closed and mouth open. For a second, Subhash thought that Amuthan was dead. But no, he was only sleeping. Amuthan was number two in the pecking order within the unit

‘Amutha, wake up!’ Subhash lightly tapped Amuthan’s leg with his shoe.

When Amuthan opened his eyes, he said, ‘did you hear the news? They have captured Kilinochchi.’

It took Amuthan a few seconds to register the information. He then said ‘bastards.’ He sat up, his eyes darting widely before he calmed down and said ‘it was bound to happen wasn’t it? Once Paranthan fell ……’

Amuthan sat up and said, ‘at this rate, it will be a while before we realise our homeland!’

It was tine for a serious pep talk, Subhash realised.

‘Amutha, do you remember your first fight? When was it?’

‘Oh, I crossed the Verugal river and … there wasn’t much fighting. They gave up without a fight.’

Subhash cursed himself for having asked such a question. He knew that Amuthan had joined the Movement just after the ceasefire. He ought to have guessed that Amuthan’s baptism of fire would have been when that traitor from the East back-stabbed the Cause.

‘No, your first real fight. With the army. That stuff in the East wasn’t fighting.’

‘We attacked Jaffna. Just after the cease fire officially ended.’

Subhash almost stomped his foot in frustration. That attack on Jaffna which was held by the army since 1995 had not been successful, though the army’s subsequent counter-attack on the LTTE’s defence lines had been repulsed with enormous casualties to the Sinhalese. This was the problem. People like Amuthan had never participated in a serious victory. They were too young, though Amuthan was quite old by the LTTE’s standards.

‘You are almost twenty, aren’t you?’

‘I have crossed twenty,’ Amuthan said with a tilt of his shoulders. Though he wore a tattered Tiger uniform, Amuthan wore no shoes and his slipper-clad feet were encased in mud. The scattered stubble on his cheeks and jaws did not help much and the army hat he had on, added to the general impression of a scarecrow.

‘You must remember how every one celebrated after we captured Elephant Pass, don’t you?’

‘Of course I do. I even remember how it felt when we took Mullaitivu. I was eight years old then.’

‘And I was thirteen. Yes, Mullativu was the best of them all. We had just lost Jaffna and we were all feeling horrible about it.’

Subhash paused for a moment and continued. ‘My first battle was at Oddusudan. I had just finished my training at that time. I had joined up immediately after I was sixteen. I wasn’t forced to join. I did it on my own. The rains had stopped and it was quite hot and dry. I think it was in October. We took over a month to take Oddusudan. This was the beginning of the third of the Ceaseless Waves. In those days Annai would spend a lot of time with us.’

Subhash sensed that a few people were standing behind him. He turned around. The four teenage boys, three of them with wisps of hair on their upper mandibles and the fourth one with cheeks that wouldn’t need a razor for many years, smiled at him with embarrassment. Well, it wouldn’t do them any harm to listen to what he had to say. They were at the base of the bund and were relatively safe.

‘And just a day after we captured Oddusudan, we took Nedunkerni. It was Ampakamam next. Karupaddamurippu fell to us shortly after that. The big army garrison at Mankulam couldn’t stand up to us. Nainamadu and Puliyankulam came next. The army base at Thallady fell to us like a ripe fruit. Seththukkulam was a cake walk. So many villages in Vadamarachi, they came under our control one by one.’

‘So you took part in Unceasing Waves III from the Oddusudan fight itself?’ one of the boys asked.

‘Yes, I did. Right from the start. And then before I realised what was happening, I was placed under Brigadier Balraj, he was only a colonel then, and we were fighting for the Elephant pass! And what a fight that was. It was truly the mother of all battles! Brigadier Balraj took over a thousand of us on boats to land at a place where the Sinhalese didn’t expect us. Soosai Annai said he couldn’t bring us back if things didn’t work out. We only had a one-way ticket. After landing from the boats, Balraj Annai and all of us walked from Thalaiyadi to Puthukkaattu Santhi on the highway. On the highway we held an area called the Vaththirayan Box and prevented the army sending supplies to the Elephant Pass camp from Jaffna.

‘You held it for 34 days, didn’t you?’ Amuthan asked.

‘Yes, 34 days.’ The battle of Elephant Pass was now LTTE folklore and almost everyone knew all the details. However, at a time like this, Subhash felt that he had to give his version of it to the boys around him. ‘We only had small arms and the army attacked us with helicopters and fighter planes and artillery and everything else they had. But we held on to the Vaththirayan Box.’

There was respectful silence from Amuthan and the boys. ‘During the fighting, I doubt if I slept more than two hours a day or ate more than one meal a day,’ Subhash added. These days they did not average more than two meals a day and so a reminder of how much more grim things could get was always useful.

The youngest of the teenage boys looked really young, not really a teenager. He was just a little boy, at a stretch twelve years old, almost the same age as Manikantan. Was he forcibly recruited? No, only those born in the year 1994 had so far been recruited forcibly, though in some areas, those born in 1995 were now being forced to join up. The boy in front of him couldn’t have joined voluntarily, he was sure of that. He wanted to ask that boy’s age, but daren’t. Are you 1996 born? he wanted to ask that youngster, but he desisted since Amuthan might report him. Manikantan’s birthday was the tenth of April 1996. He would be thirteen in three months’ time. Would they force him to join? Subhash was willing to make any sacrifice for the Movement, but Manikantan was just a little boy and was out of bounds for everybody. He, Subhash would sacrifice his life if needed, but they had no right to make Manikantan fight until he was old enough. Once Manikantan was fourteen, they could ask him to sign up. Ideally sixteen was the right age for a young man to join the Movement. He was sixteen when he had joined. But now that they were in dire straits he could understand fourteen year olds being drafted. However, a twelve year old should under no circumstances be forced to join.

Subhash forced himself to focus on the present and to ignore the young boy in front of him. They were waiting for him to say something.

‘They had two complexes, at Elephant Pass. One called Iyakachchi and the other called Elephant Pass itself. We took them both. The army ran away is disarray. If only we had more men, we could have chased and killed all those soldiers who were running away and we could have got Eelam right then and there!’

‘Annai, did you capture a lot of weapons?’

‘Oh yes we did. We got quite a few tanks, bulldozers, artillery, machine guns, RPGs, rifles, grenades. So many things we got.

The boys held on to each of his words. Now there were five of them. And Amuthan.

‘So what I want to tell you is that a defeat means nothing. Even a victory or two …..’ Subhash wasn’t sure how to complete that sentence. It wasn’t leading to the point he wanted to make, which was that a few defeats did not mean the end of the Movement which had seen so many glorious victories and that they would and should fight till Eelam was realised. It didn’t matter that they had lost their first line of defence or that their hold on their second line was tenuous.

Subhash took a deep breath and was about to rephrase what he had said when the artillery shells started to fall once more.

‘Back to your positions,’ he shouted and set an example himself. ‘Ask them to use ammunition sparingly,’ he shouted to Amuthan.

Would the army send in its infantry once more? Subhash wondered as he ran up the bund in a crouch. He had no doubt that they would be beaten back. The bund had a trench in front of it and the dry land in front of the trench was heavily mined. The army’s usual tactic was to intensively shell the bunds and bomb them from the air, after which the infantry would, under cover of machine gun fire, advance into the minefields carrying Bangalore torpedo tubes which they would drop on the minefields and retreat. After the Bangalores had exploded, the infantry would dash through the path cleared by the Bangalores and charge the bunds, at which stage, the Tiger machineguns, until then largely silent, would open up and cut down most of the attackers. A few survivors would, under cover of the smoke and dust and confusion, turn around and run back to the army’s lines.

The attack turned out to be no different from the previous ones. The shells fell quickly and fast. Only a few of them caused any real damage. One of the bunkers close to Subhash took a direct hit and two of the three boys inside it died instantly. A third one must have been badly hurt for he screamed a few times and stopped after that. He too must have died, Subhash thought.

An aircraft appeared overhead and dropped a few bombs one after the other. Subhash was pretty sure that not more than one bomb hit its target. The lucky bomb fell in an area where the line was held by the Jeyanthan boys. There was a dark plume of smoke and some secondary explosions. The rest of the bombs fell harmlessly on unoccupied terrain. The aircraft was followed by four Mi24 helicopter gunships which fired indiscriminately at the bunds.

Subhash hated the helicopters more than the bomber plane that flew at a great height, dropped its bombs and disappeared. His hatred for helicopters was a carryover from his boyhood days in Jaffna where both the IPKF and the army used the gunships indiscriminately. The Mi24s completed a sortie and turned around. Subhash knew that they would be back.

The lads with him in the bunker were itching to fire their machine gun, which was primed and ready. ‘Steady lads. Wait till the soldiers appear,’ Subhash told them more than once. The lads looked afraid. . Of the three, one was seventeen or so. The other two were around fifteen. How would Manikantan look in a Tiger uniform? That young boy who had listen to his pep talk, he had worn a uniform that fitted him well, didn’t he? Subhash cursed the tailors who stitched those kid size uniforms. Manikantan was safe for another year at least. The Movement never forced anyone below the age of fourteen to join. Or, was he? How then, did that youngster beside him end up in uniform? They both were just little boys.

Soon a number of tanks appeared, crunching their way slowly through the cacti and mangroves that dotted Muhamalai’s dry terrain. There would be soldiers crouching behind the tanks, Subhash knew. A few armoured personnel carriers also made an appearance. The officers would be in the APCs. If they could take some of them out, it would be grand. The trenches and bunds that formed their first line of defence, which the LTTE had vacated (voluntarily, of course) a month ago, were filled up or removed at a few sections to enable the tanks, APCs and soldiers to get through to the second line which they were holding. The third line of defence, yet another series of trenches and bunds, lay just a couple of kilometres behind them. Would they have to fall back to the third line?

‘Hold fire lads,’ Subhash repeated yet again. The bunker smelt of cordite, which effortlessly overpowered the other smells in that confined area. The tanks, APCs and soldiers were spread out in a line wide line that stretched as far out on both sides as his eyes could make out.

A loud explosion was heard. One of the tanks had been hit by a monster mine planted by the Victor Unit. This was a signal for the LTTE to open up. The Muhamalai forward defence line was held by a mix of men from the Charles Anthony brigade to which Subhash belonged, the Jeyanthan brigade, the Imran-Pandiyan brigade, women, or rather girls, from the Malathi and Sothiya brigades, with support from the Victor Anti-Tank and Mining Unit and Col. Bhanu’s boys from Kittu Artillery and Kutti Sri Mortars. They all fired at once. The mines too went off, seemingly all at once. How did they manage to get it right every time? Two APCs were ablaze. A number of soldiers who were trailing the tanks and APCs were cut down as they ran forward. The helicopter gunships re-appeared and they took a heavy toll on the lads. Anyone who was exposed was raked with heavy fire from the helicopters. The tanks which survived the monster mines fired at the bunkers at almost point blank range.

All of a sudden the fighting was over. For the moment, that is. The soldiers from the 53rd and 55th divisions which were fighting them must have laid down their Bangalore torpedo tubes and retreated to the trenches of the LTTE’s former first line, Subhash knew. He looked around him. The lads looked exhilarated; especially the thirteen year old whose eyes had a wild look in them. No sooner had the soldiers disappeared, the Bangalores exploded. And with them exploded so many mines and booby traps that the Victor Unit had planted just after they vacated the first line of defence.

‘There, there is a path there, let’s focus on that,’ Subhash told the lads. This time they knew that there would be many more soldiers, but they would all tread the paths cleared by the Bangalores. They didn’t have to wait for long. The Sinhala infantry charged out of their trenches and raced forward through the cleared paths, their helicopters and artillery providing covering fire. Must be at least a thousand men involved in the attack, Subhash thought. Two of the lads operated the heavy machine gun. Subhash and another boy fired their rifles. From time to time, Subhash would turn around to see that the machine gun was firing where he wanted it to fire and that it hadn’t jammed.

The soldiers came closer. Subhash could see their sweaty faces now. There was one particularly ugly looking man who seemed to have difficulty running. He had a moustache and a dirty stubble. Was that a big and nasty mole on his jaw? Subhash could imagine the two black hairs that would be sprouting out of that mole. He took careful aim and shot at that man who fell down. Was he dead? He would never know. Suddenly Subhash wanted that ugly soldier to survive. No, he shouldn’t have shot at him. However, he kept firing. Take this Colonel Kamal Gunaratne. This is for you Brigadier Prasanna de Silva. Kamal Gunaratne and Prasanna de Silva might be safe in their command centres behind the frontlines, but he, Subhash, would mow their men down like rats.

Then there was a loud explosion above them and Subhash’s world went blank.

Subhash was a little boy and the Indians were coming over to help them. They had been starving until a few Indian Air Force planes came over Jaffna and dropped them food supplies. The Sinhalese were scared out of their wits by Operation Poomaalai, weren’t they? The army knew that it couldn’t fight the mighty Indians. No, the Indians were the real enemies. Bigger enemies than even the Sinhalese. Thalaivar had always said that at some point they would have to fight the Indians. The Indians would never let them have Eelam. Since the Indians had come to Jaffna, they might as well fight them there. Subhash’s father didn’t agree. His mother was silent. One of his cousins went off to fight the Indians. I too want to fight the Indians, Subhash had said after they brought back his cousin’s body. You aren’t going anywhere Chellakannaa,’ his mother told him tearfully. That was his name. Chellakannan. Subhash was a fake name, one given to him by the Movement. They had no right to change a man’s name. How did it help to destroy a man’s identity? Wasn’t that what they were fighting for? Their own identity?

He was on a tractor which was making slow progress along a dirt road. ‘Where are we?’ he asked the man sitting next to him.

‘Annai, we are going to Kandawalai. From there, we are to go to Ooriyaan.’

Amuthan’s face appeared in front of him. ‘Look at him. Not a single scratch on him.’

‘What happened?’ Subhash asked.

A shell landed on top of your bunker. You have concussion. Nothing more, you lucky bastard.

Subhash faded out of consciousness yet again.

‘We have paid back for your son’s death,’ a man was telling his uncle, who had a long, grey beard. ‘The Indians came to the University and we were waiting for them. They thought we were idiots, that we would never listen to their radio communications. We killed so many of them like pigeons.’

‘Will my son be coming back?’ his uncle asked the man, who looked embarrassed.

‘I’ll fight the Indians,’ Subhash promised the world at large. But the Indians sailed away on their big ships.

The Sinhalese were not the real enemies. There was a ceasefire on and they were likely to freeze the forward defence lines as permanent boundaries. So many men and women got married. Subhash would also get married one day, with Thalaivar’s blessings. Karuna Amman was the real enemy, trying to create a split between the North and the East. What right did he have to say that the East was discriminated against? Didn’t Thailaivar make Karuna Amman his main deputy? How could Karuna Amman say that the easterners had made so many sacrifices and got nothing in return? Wasn’t Bala Annai from Batticaloa? Where was Karuna Amman now? Somewhere in Colombo?

There was that beautiful girl in the Malathi brigade. He never got to ask her name though for a time they had been sitting next to each other. She had smelt so good, unlike the men he was usually surrounded by. Colonel Vidusha was chasing him with a broom. ‘How dare you look at one of my girls like that? Don’t you know that the Malathi brigade is out of bounds for you? If you want a girl, go find one from the Sothiya Brigade. Colonel Durga won’t mind.’

At that point Colonel Theepan who was responsible for their region’s overall defences came up and solemnly warned him, ‘if I catch you even thinking of a woman, you’ll be out of the Movement. I will make you learn Sinhalese and force you to join the army. And we will take away your name. You will henceforth be called Chellakannan.’

Oh no! On no! His change of name to Subhash had given him a new lease of life. A new identity! They were all born again when they joined the Movement. In any event, he had never liked his original name.

‘I have two sons. Chellakannan and Manikantan. They will look after me when I am old,’ his father always said. He said the same thing when he packed up and took his new and young wife and new and young son to Puthukudiyiruppu.

But Manikantan was so young. He was just a little boy. How would he look after anyone? What would happen to his parents if he were to die for the Movement?

Manikantan would always be a baby. He could never be made to wear a uniform. Would they force Manikantan to choose another name when he joined the Movement? It was Subhash who had chosen the name Manikantan for his kid brother. He was almost thirteen when Manikantan was born, his animosity towards his father for having remarried two years ago and his sorrow over his mother’s demise four years ago, had all been forgotten in the joy of Manikantan’s birth.

Someone should tell Kamal not to take on too many roles in the same movie. He had done four roles in Michael Madhana Kama Rajan. Four was the limit, though it would be safer to stick to just two as in Apoorva Sahothararhal. Taking on ten roles in Dasavathaaram was ludicrous. However, nothing could compare with Vikram. Why could Kamal stick to action roles like that? Except for Pirapa-Annai, no one was as good as Kamal.

‘Here, try and drink something.’ He was awake and someone was trying to pour some water down his throat. It was Amuthan. They were on a small dinghy which was so crowded, it appeared it might sink into the water any moment. ‘How old is that little boy? Is he alright?’ he asked Amuthan.

‘Which little boy?’

‘The one who was listening in when we were talking. He was the youngest of the four. Not more than twelve. They shouldn’t have forced him to join.’

‘You lie down Annai,’ Amuthan said firmly.

‘Please tell me Amutha,’ Subhash pleaded. ‘Is that little boy alright?’

‘I think so,’ Amuthan said with hesitation. He then added, ‘we are all evacuating to Mullativu. We have been ordered to give up Muhamalai. Soon all our boys will be taken out from there.’

‘Are you sure that little boy is alright?’ Subhash asked again clutching Amuthan’s sleeve. Somehow he felt that Manikantan’s fate was tied to that of the boy he had met earlier in the day. How could he make sure that Manikantan was not going to be forcibly recruited from his father’s new house at Puthukudiyiruppu? When Col. Theepan made an appearance, Subhash would speak to him and request that Manikantan be kept out of the fracas. Manikantan was just a little boy. His father wouldn’t survive if Manikantan were to be taken away. Theepan Annai might slap him for making such a request, but he would nevertheless make it. What did he have to lose? No, what if they forced Manikantan to join solely because of Subhash’s impertinence. No, he would keep quiet.

Their dinghy had stopped. Why did it stop? What was that man doing, getting out of the boat? Was he going to swim instead of travelling on the dinghy? May be swimming would be more comfortable than sitting in the crowded dinghy. Ha! Ha! The water was not deep at all. The man who got out was wading through waist deep water. Now he was pushing the dinghy. Now another man had got off the dinghy and he was helping the first man push the dinghy. Why were they doing that? Ah! the dinghy was stuck on a sand bank.

May be he should get out of the dinghy and go to Manikantan and make sure no one forced him to join the wonderful Movement till he was fourteen. He could walk through the water to where Manikantan was, couldn’t he? If he didn’t get to Manikantan, they might take him away and put him in one of those miserable uniforms and make him fight. Could he make it to Puthukudiyiruppu on his own? He would have to try, else he would lose Manikantan. Subhash stood up, tottered and nearly fell, but Amuthan caught him in time. ‘Annai, what are you doing?’ They made him sit down. As he sat down, he noticed that the man sitting next to him had his rifle propped up by his side. Subhash picked up the rifle. ‘I’ll get off here,’ he told Amuthan. ‘I won’t let the National Leader take Manikantan. If he touches Manikantan, I will kill him. If he goes near Manikantan, I’ll shoot him like a dog’

‘Annai, shut up,’ Amuthan hissed. ‘He is not himself,’ Amuthan explained at large to the men on the dinghy.

‘What’s wrong with him?’ someone asked angrily.

Subhash waved his rifle at that voice and said, ‘don’t you dare touch Manikantan. I am going to kill Pirapa-Annai.’ He might as well kill Pirapa-Annai, just to make sure Manikantan was safe.

He brought his finger to the trigger, but before he could do any damage, someone on the dinghy shot him dead.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Short Story: The Departure

Rupini peeped into the dining room. They were playing ‘Elephant’ with Pappathy walking on all fours and Nidhi on top of her. Girish was looking on amused, as if he wouldn’t be caught dead doing something like that, though he hadn’t been very different when he was Nidhi’s age. It was such a pity that Pappathy had to go, Rupini thought.

Once again, Rupini rehearsed in her mind what she was planning to tell Pappathy. You are good with the children, but I can’t keep you on after what you did last week, she would tell Pappathy. There would be protestations and appeals. Pappathy would remind her of her usual good and charitable nature and beg to be given another chance. But no, Rupini would be firm. Should she allow Pappathy to say goodbye to the kids? No, it would be better if she just left. Actually, she wasn’t too sure. What was the harm in allowing Pappathy to bid adieu to Girish and Nidhi?

Both the kids would be upset when they were told that Pappathy was leaving or had gone already, but it couldn’t be helped. Hopefully the new girl would fit in and the kids would eventually get used to her.

Rupini went in search of Shekar who was in his study surfing the internet, though he had claimed he
needed a couple of hours to finish off some office work he had brought home.

‘Shekar, can you please take the kids to the terrace? I am going to deal with Pappathy.’

Shekar grunted, scratched his balls, the baggy shorts he was wearing leaving ample space for his fingers to do their job, and said, ‘ask them to come here.’

‘You don’t want them in your study, do you?’ Rupini asked with a smile.

‘No, no, of course not. Okay I’ll take them to the terrace.’

Rupini stood where she was and a few moments later, she heard whoops of joy. A patter of feet followed by the opening of the entrance door and the click of the latch as the door was locked from behind. Shekar spent so little time with the kids that even a brief outing to the terrace made the kids so happy!

Slowly and deliberately Rupini made her way to the dinning room where Pappathy was flipping through the pages of one of Shekar’s IT journals. Normally Rupini would have shouted at Pappathy, but today she was patient.

She stood by the door and waited for Pappathy to notice her presence, which she did after a few moments.

‘Amma, I was only looking at the pictures,’ Pappathy guiltily said as she closed the magazine and pushed it away from her.

‘No, I thought you had become an expert on computers, considering the speed with which you flipped through the pages.’

Pappathy giggled. She was slightly younger than Rupini, but she looked ten years older, her hair almost entirely grey.

‘Let me go and see to the lunch. Have you decided what you want me to make?’

Pappathy, forget lunch. Tell me, last week when you went shopping, didn’t you tell me that you lost the receipt?’

Pappathy looked surprised. Then she said, ‘yes Amma. It fell from my hand as I walked home.’

‘And that was the third time you’ve lost the receipt, isn’t it?’

‘Amma, I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again.’ Pappathy had the air of one who had made a mistake that didn’t matter at all.

‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the receipt,’ Rupini said very smoothly.

‘What? Oh!’

Pappathy’s face registered shock and surprise as Rupini took out the duplicate receipt she had got from the shopkeeper.

‘Look, this says three hundred and forty rupees.’

Pappathy was silent, guilt splashed all over her face.

‘When you lost the receipt for the second time, we became suspicious. Didn’t you think we would suspect something? All shopkeepers have a duplicate of the receipt they give you, didn’t you know that?’

‘How much did you steal the first time? And how much the second time? Was it always forty rupees?’ Rupini’s voice lost its calm and rose to a high pitch. Shekar slogged so hard five days a week, putting in such long hours at his firm that he almost never spent any time with the kids during weekdays and this wretched woman had the nerve to steal their money!

Pappathy was in tears. ‘Amma I’m so very sorry. Please forgive me. I won’t do it again.’

‘How can we every trust you again Pappathy? Haven’t we treated you as one of the family? Have I given you so many of my sarees? All of the clothes Girish and Nidhi outgrew, I’ve given to you. New clothes for Deepavali, we’ve done so much for you. And yet you had to ….. steal.’

The word ‘steal’ brought on a fresh outflow of tears from Pappathy.

‘Can you count how many of Ayya’s shirts and trousers I’ve given you for your husband?’ Can you?’ With that Rupini broke down.

‘Amma, please forgive me,’ Pappathy begged.

‘How can I?’ Rupini asked Pappathy, wiping away her tears.

Pappathy was silent. ‘How can I forgive you Pappathy?’ Rupini asked once again, her voice hoarse with anger.

‘Pappathy, you must leave!’ Rupini declared. ‘Just leave right now.’

‘Amma, please have mercy. I have three children, I needed money, that’s why I….’

‘If you needed money, you should have asked me. How many times have I lent you money?’

‘Amma, just forgive me once, please. I’ve been here for five years! And I won’t be able to bear it if I have to go away from thambi and pappa.’

‘If you cared so much about thambi and pappa, you shouldn’t have done what you did,’ Rupini told Pappathy in a feeble voice. She realised that she would, after all, have to let Pappathy say goodbye to the kids. Well, it wasn’t the end of the world if Pappathy told the kids she was leaving.

‘Tell you what, I’ll call down Girish and Nidhi from the terrace. You can say goodbye to them and leave. I don’t want you here for another moment.’

‘Amma, please forgive me once. I won’t do it again.’ Pappathy had stopped crying. ‘Let me go and see to lunch. The children will be hungry soon. It’s already eleven thirty.’

‘Don’t worry about lunch,’ Rupini became angry once again. What right did Pappathy have to presume that she was indispensable? ‘I’m going to have lunch delivered from the Charminar. And a new girl will be starting here tomorrow. It’s all been arranged. Why do you think I waited for a week before asking you to leave?’

Pappathy was silent.

‘Today is the fifteenth of July. Here are your wages for the last fifteen days.’ Rupini pressed five hundred rupees into Pappathy’s palm. Surprisingly, Pappathy did not refuse the money. Rather, she accepted it and tucked it into her blouse and said, ‘Amma, I’ll leave now.’

‘Let me call Girish and Nidhi from the terrace. You can say good bye to them.’

‘No!’ Pappathy’s voice was firm. ‘Don’t bother Amma. I don’t want to say goodbye to thambi and pappa.’

‘You don’t want to…?’ Rupini’s voice trailed off.

‘No Amma, I don’t want to. And why should I, if I’m leaving anyway?’

With that Pappathy strode off, closing the front door behind her with a firm click.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Short Story: Marketing Tricks

‘Don’t mention the product until I am done,’ Mustafa reminded Ashwin yet again as they waited to be called into the CEO’s office.

‘I won’t,’ Ashwin promised Mustafa as he had done just a few minutes earlier. ‘And you will rub your palms together when you are done?’

‘Yes and then you can start your pitch.’

Ashwin clenched his jaw, gripped the arms of the black leather sofa he was sitting on and nodded his head. The reception area was just about average for a bulk printing firm anywhere in India. The yellow paint had faded, but wasn’t peeling. The carpet was threadbare but had no holes in it. If sofa they were sitting on hadn’t been within firing range of the pedestal fan that stood in a corner, keeping the air in circulation, they would have been sweaty.

The CEO’s secretary came out of the cabin and told them, ‘please go inside. Sir will see you now.’

They both got up and walked into the small cabin which was plastered with flowery wall paper. Ashwin’s eyes searched the room till he located the a/c unit. It was quite small and more importantly, old, Ashwin noted with relief.

Mustafa started off with profuse thanks for having been given an opportunity to see the head of such a reputed organisation. They had heard so much about the CEO, and of course about the company, that it was a pleasure to travel all the way to Nagpur to meet with the CEO in person. They were not there to sell anything, no, they only wanted to pay homage to such a great organisation and fantastic personality.

‘That Toyota Corolla parked under the neem tree, is that yours sir?’

The CEO was forced to admit that it was.

Mustafa admitted to having an uncle who had a worked in Dubai for twenty years and when he came back, he had brought back the Corolla he had driven in Dubai. Mustafa had been allowed to drive that vehicle once. What perfect gears it had, what fantastic suspensions, what splendid acceleration it possessed!

‘Actually the Toyota doesn’t have great acceleration,’ the CEO objected mildly, though he didn’t look too displeased. 'The Jag has much better acceleration. It’s a sports car. Some of those German cars do as well. Like the BMW.’

‘You’re right. What I meant is that the Toyota is so optimum in everything. I’m sure it gives you the sort of mileage a BMW can’t even dream of. It’s my dream to buy a Toyota one day,’ Mustafa declared.

Ashwin easily managed to avoid looking surprised. He had never heard Mustafa voice such an opinion before, but then Mustafa frequently came up with such dreams. Their last meeting was with the CFO of a bank, and Mustafa had told that man that his dream had been to do an MBA in finance, as the CFO had done, but he was too dumb to do that – and had been forced to do a marketing MBA instead.

Next Mustafa took out three sachets of Paan Paraag from his pocket and offered one to the CEO and another to Ashwin.

‘I am addicted to this stuff,’ the CEO told Mustafa and happily took a sachet from him.

How on earth did Mustafa find out that the CEO liked Paan Paraag? Ashwin wondered as he accepted the sachet from Mustafa, popped it open and dumped the contents into his mouth.

Mustafa then turned his attention to a framed photograph kept near the PC.

‘Your son is very cute,’ Mustafa told the CEO who took in the compliment with a narrowing of his eyes. He started to say something, but Mustafa interrupted him to say, ‘really cute. And smart looking. I’m sure he is as intelligent as his father.’

Ashwin looked at the photograph once more. The CEO’s son definitely took after his father, which was a pity since his mother was quite good looking. But no, the baby boy had inherited his father’s very broad forehead, chubby nose and rather sharpish eyes.

‘He must be three?’

Barely had the CEO nodded when Mustafa said, ‘I have a nephew that age. In my opinion, three is the best age for children. They are past the terrible twos and …’

Once again Ashwin got the feeling that if Mustafa didn’t chatter too much, the CEO would have said something important, something he wanted to say.

‘Very, very cute,’ Mustafa concluded his monologue. There was an uncomfortable silence after that.

Mustafa looked at Ashwin and rubbed his palms together.

Ashwin launched his spiel, but the CEO was not really paying attention. Or rather, it was obvious that the CEO didn’t want to pay much attention to them. If at all, the vibes emanating from him suggested that he wanted them out of the office. The warmth that had oozed from the man when he took the Paan Paraag from Mustafa had totally evaporated. Nevertheless, Ashwin put on a brave face and explained to the CEO how he could do much worse that purchase a central a/c system from their firm for his entire office.

They wrapped up rather quickly and came out. The CEO was to revert to them in a week’s time after giving their proposal some thought. Outside the office, Mustafa dialled a number on his mobile. He held the mobile to his ear for a few seconds and shook his head in frustration. ’He never answers the phone!’ he told the world at large, rather than to Ashwin.

‘Who’s this guy?’ Ashwin asked, without really expecting a reply since Mustafa did not always care to elaborate.

‘That’s a chap who works in that office,’ Mustafa said as if by reflex action. It must be the chap who told Mustafa that the CEO liked Paan Paraag, Ashwin deduced.

‘It went off well, didn’t it?’ Mustafa asked Ashwin, before adding, ‘but not too well.’

Ashwin hesitated to give his verdict and Mustafa said, ‘everything was fine till I told him his kid is cute. Now why would he have a problem with it, even if he knows that miserable boy is anything but cute? Unless he has just found out that he was being cuckolded and it’s not his kid. But that’s not possible. That boy is a spitting image of his father.’

Then Mustafa’s mobile rang. Mustafa looked at his mobile and said, ‘it’s him.’

‘Thank you so much for your help,’ Mustafa told his contact, before adding, ‘yes everything went off too well. Your boss said he would confirm in a week’s time.’

Mustafa had a blank expression on his face as he said, ‘yes of course, if we get this contract we will pay you a thousand rupees.’

And good luck with your thousand rupees mate, Ashwin thought with a small smile playing around his lips. It was very warm, though they were standing under a tree that shaded the main gate.

‘We talked about everything under the sun. We had so much in common.’ Ashwin wished Mustafa would hail an auto and then carry on with his conversation once they were inside the auto.

The man at the other end must have said something longwinded since Mustafa was forced to listen for a while. The frown on his forehead grew wider and he listened.

‘We may be invited home to meet his family. He hinted at that. Yes. After the contract is concluded. Yes. To meet his wife and son!’

‘A daughter is it?’

‘You say he has a daughter and a son?’

‘No? Only a daughter?’

There was silence for a while.

‘So that kid in the picture is his daughter, is it?’

‘Ha! I would never have guessed.’

‘Did I say it was a boy? Of course not, I’m careful about such things. I did have an inkling you see.’

When Mustafa hung up, Ashwin quickly turned around so that he didn’t have to meet Mustafa’s eyes.

‘From behind him, Mustafa asked, ‘do you think he’ll hold it against us?’

‘He might not.’ Ashwin was silent for a few moments. He then carefully added, ‘we’ll know in a week’s time, won’t we?’

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

I Don’t Have A Surname. Do You?

Recently a friend of mine who finished a Masters degree from a prestigious university in the UK received an offer of employment from a firm that designed oil drilling equipment. One of the conditions of the offer was that my friend had to produce copies of his A Level, undergraduate and post graduate degree certificates. Within a day of emailing scanned copies of the certificates, my friend received a call from his future employer’s HR department which wanted him to explain why the name on his A Level and undergraduate certificates was different from the one on his passport and post certificates.

My friend hails from a town in southern India and his name is Srinivas. To use a turn of phrase used very often by western newspapers, like many others in southern India, my friend has only one name. It’s Srinivas. Period. His school records mention his name as R. Srinivas, the patronymic ‘R’ in front denoting his father’s name ‘Ramaswamy’. When the time came for Srinivas to travel to the UK for his higher studies, he applied for a passport. An Indian passport application form requires all applicants to have a ‘Given Name’ and a Surname’ and so Srinivas expanded his name ‘R. Srinivas’ to read as ‘Ramaswamy Srinivas’. When Srinivas reached the UK, he entered his name as ‘Ramaswamy Srinivas’ in his university records. People started calling him by his new first name, ‘Ramaswamy’. When they wanted to become formal, they would call him Mr. Srinivas.

To cut a long story short, it took Srinivas a great deal of effort to convince his new employer that he was both R. Srinivas as well as Ramaswamy Srinivas.

For the Christians of Kerala, names are usually a jumble of biblical and/or Indian names thrown together. The Indian name might be a given name or the family name. Not all names have family names on record (as in my case, which I am not too unhappy about since my family name ‘Purayidathil’ can be a mouthful) and when it makes an appearance, the family name may be at the beginning of the name. To use an example, the Indian defence minister A.K. Antony’s name may be expanded as “Arakkaparambil Kurian Antony.” The family name is “Arakkaparambil” and it appears at the beginning of the name whilst the Christian name Antony appears at the end. ‘Kurian’ is Malayalam for ‘Cyriac’ and takes middle stage. According to this Indian government website, A. K. Antony’s father was Arakkaparambil Kurian Pillai. However, in the case of A. K. Antony’s two sons, the family name “Arakkaparambil” does not make an appearance at all and the boys are named “Anil Kurien Antony” and “Ajith Paul Antony”.

To use another famous person as an example, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has only one name (Karunanidhi) but has three wives and a number of children. The Patronymic ‘M’ is installed in the beginning of the name to denote Karunanidhi’s father’s name ‘Muthuvel.’ All of Karunanidhi’s sons sport the initials M.K - M. K. Stalin, M.K Azhagiri etc.

It is not only Indians from Southern India who suffer from a need to have surnames. For a decade or so until 2007, Canada operated a rule which prohibited the use of ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’ as surnames by individuals applying to migrate to Canada. The rationale behind such a rule was that there were too many Singhs and Kaurs in Canada and it was well neigh impossible to distinguish between them. Patel is supposed to be one of the most common surnames in the UK, even though ethnic Indians form only 1.8% of the British population and Gujaratis are outnumbered by Punjabis two to one.

The fact of the matter is that neither Singh nor Kaur nor Patel is a surname, as it is understood in the West. No, they are community names, as are names like Jains, Goels, Chopras, Mukherjees, Nairs, Menons or Sinhas. Most Indians don’t have surnames. Period.

It is not only Indians who don’t have surnames. Arabs too don’t have surnames. Instead, they have a chain of names and a father’s last name may not be the same as a son’s last name.

The Chinese have family names, but the family name comes first followed by the given name. Of course, the Arabs and Chinese, just like the Indians, tamper with their names so that they fit western templates.

Japanese names follow the western format since Japanese rulers have over the years forced their people to adhere to a strict set of rules for naming children. Thailand forced people to adopt a surname in 1913 and every family is expected to have a unique surname. It is also common for Thais to change their surnames frequently.

As the world becomes more inclusive and tolerant, I think it is high time countries all over the world ditched the notion that every name should consist of a surname and a given name. Every individual should be entitled to have a name of his or her own choice. Everyone must write their names in full and not have to break it up into given names and surnames. Forcing a person to change his or her name or tamper with it is a gross assault on the victim’s individuality.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Short Story: The Best of Both Worlds

Mini saw the grin on Abhilash’s face and immediately said, ‘don’t spend the whole weekend playing. Try and study a bit. You have an exam next week.’ She resume powdering Abhilash’s face and when she was finished, she patted his shirt to remove the few specks of talcum powder that had flown down from his face and landed on the light blue fabric of his shirt.

‘But the test is only next Thursday! Why should I start studying now? And it’s only a class test.’

‘Because you must. Because I said so. Just do it, or you may fail the test.’

Mini gave Abhilash’s belt a tug so that the buckle would be positioned perfectly in the centre. However, she must have tugged a mite too hard since the belt moved too much to the right and had to be moved back.

‘Ouch! No, I won’t. I know most of Chapter Three anyway.’

‘Don’t you have both Chapter Three and Chapter Four?’

‘Yes, but Chapter Four is very small and ..’

‘Revise them both once. At least once. Okay? Make your Daddy sit with you when you revise.’

‘But Daddy says we should only have fun when I am with him.’

‘Don’t you have fun when you are with me?’

‘Yes, I do Mummy!’ Abhilash gave his mother a hug, which Mini grudgingly accepted.

Mini was about to say, ‘but you like your Daddy better, but she stopped herself just in time.

‘Mummy, if I get full marks in the test, will you buy me a mobile?

‘No, you are only ten. Ten year olds don’t need mobiles.’

‘What if I get the third rank in the half-yearly exam?’

‘No. If you come first, I’ll buy you one.’

‘But I won’t get first rank!’ Abhilash wailed. There’s Renju who is so clever and there’s Jincy P. Kuruvila and …’

Mini’s mother breezed into the room, ‘Is Abhilash ready yet? He might as well leave before it gets dark.’

‘Is Jobin here yet?’

‘Yes, he got back ages ago.’

‘Normally he doesn’t get back from the market so quickly.’

‘Yes, but today he wants to go for a movie with his family after he drops off Abhilash.’

Mini grunted to show her displeasure.

‘Abhilash, tell your Daddy to cut down on the liquor.’

‘But Daddy has stopped drinking.’ Abhilash looked at his grandmother’s face to see if she believed him. ‘Yes, since last Christmas, he hasn’t touched a drop.’

‘That’s what he tells you. Won’t I know better? That man won’t change.’

‘Mama, drop it,’ Mini admonished her mother.

Abhilash picked up the small suitcase that he was to carry with him.

‘See, he is raring to go,’ Mini told her mother. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry,’ she added to Abhilash.

‘Ammachi said I should get there before dark. That’s why I was in a hurry.’ Abhilash put the suitcase down and waited for the two adults to make up their minds.

Ammachi took a deep breath and Mini clenched her teeth, though Abhilash’s monthly trips to Panampally Nagar to visit his father had been going on for almost a year.

‘He might as well go,’ Mini said. ‘It will get dark pretty soon.’ She added.

Mini’s mother was less forgiving. ‘I hope they give him dinner when he gets there. ‘Are you feeling hungry?’ she asked Abhilash.

‘No. Not at all,’ Abhilash replied, trying to hide his anxiety.’

‘Is mon ready?’ Jobin’s booming voice could be heard from the courtyard. Jobin was almost fifty and only Mini’s father had the guts to reproach him.

In the absence of any injunction from his mother or grandmother, Abhilash picked up his suitcase which was propped against the light green wall. ‘Mummy, I will come back before it gets dark on Sunday,’ he told his mother and walked out, trying hard not to put a spring in his step.

He would be at VeegaLand tomorrow!

Forty minutes later, he was knocking on the door of his father’s bungalow at Panampally Nagar.

Forty one minutes later, he was enclosed in a bear hug, his father smelling of something nice, something he would definitely drink when he was older.

‘Moné, you look so very thin,’ his father’s mother said. ‘Don’t they give you enough to eat?’

‘They do Ammachi.’ Abhilash turned around whilst still inside his father’s bear hug so that he could meet his grandmother’s eyes.

‘Why did you bring that suitcase? Don’t you have enough clothes here?’

‘Daddy your paunch is even bigger.’ Abhilash got out of the hug and wrapped his arms around his father’s tummy, which couldn’t be encompassed with his two hands.

‘Yes, it is,’ his Daddy cheerfully admitted.

‘You are going to stay here forever, aren’t you?’ his grandmother asked.

Abhilash smiled back at her.

‘Give him something to eat,’ Abhilash’s Daddy commanded his grandmother.’

‘Yes, let me do that. Here give me your suitcase.’

‘Where is Hannah?’

‘Where else? She is in front of the TV.’

Abhilash’s father put him down and Abhilash ran upstairs to the second drawing room where the TV was always on. Unlike the TV at his own place, which he could switch on only after he finished a certain amount of homework, depending on the mood swings of his mother.

As expected, Hannah was watching TV, some boring girlie cartoon that Abhilash would never watch if the remote control were in his power.

‘Ammae,’ Hannah called out and almost left the room, overcome by a sudden bout of shyness. Abhilash wished she would relinquish the remote, but she didn’t. If anything, her fingers tightened her hold on the remote. There was another TV in his father’s bedroom, but it was rather small and he sensed that his father didn’t really want him watching it, even if he never said anything when he occasionally did.

The next day his Daddy took Hannah and him to VeegaLand as promised during his last visit. They had to make the most of Saturday, since Sunday would be a washout. They would have to go to church in the morning and that would take up the best part of the day. He was expected to get back to his Mummy before sunset, though the court order said nothing of that sort, he knew for sure.

For some reason, Hannah’s parents, Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie decided to tag along when they went to Veegaland.

He had been to Veegaland before many times and he knew every ride and every nook and corner very well. May be he ought to have demanded something else, he felt. May be he should have asked that he be taken to that resort at Boulgatti. Never mind, there would be other weekends with his father, he consoled himself.

Vimala Auntie was someone who knew a lot about medicines, though she was not a doctor or anything. She had a chest full of medicines, which she happily dispensed to all and sundry along with a volley of advice, if they cared to listen.

Abhilash made the mistake of sneezing once when standing close to Vimala Auntie. They were about to get into a ride, one which ended with a splash in a pool of water.

‘There, he has got a cold,’ she told Abhilash’s father. ‘I don’t think he should take any of the water rides.’

‘Nonsense, my son doesn’t have a cold. He just sneezed once.’

‘Oh, let him be,’ Jeboy uncle also chipped in. ‘A single sneeze never hurt anybody.’

That almost settled the matter and they got into the queue for the ride. But then, Abhilash sneezed again.

‘There, I told you,’ Vimala Auntie said. ‘Please let’s not take this ride,’ she beseeched Jeboy uncle and Abhilash’s father. ‘I have a strip of Coldarin with me. I’ll give one to Abhilash right away.’

‘May be we shouldn’t,’ Abhilash’s father agreed. ‘Abhilash’s let’s not do this ride. Let’s find something else to do.’

But Abhilash loved the water so much and didn’t want to give in so easily. ‘But Daddy, Mummy always lets me play in the rain. Last week it rained and I went out and played for an hour! Mummy thinks it makes me stronger. And if I catch a cold, she doesn’t give me any medicines!’ The last bit was addressed to Vimala Auntie.

Abhilash’s father was silent for a few seconds. Jeboy uncle looked down, as if he were embarrassed. Vimala Auntie looked angry. But Abhilash didn’t care.

‘Please Daddy, I won’t be back here for a long time,’ Abhilash pressed home his advantage.

‘Fine,’ his father relented. ‘In any event, you can come back here next month as well.’

Abhilash wasn’t sure if he wanted to come here when he had his next visit, but he didn’t reject the promise out of hand. He might feel like visiting Veegaland next month, who knew.

‘Take a Coldarin before you go. At least, the cold won’t get worse.’

Abhilash accepted the Coldarin and swallowed it with some water from the bottle his father had in his backpack.

That evening, they had dinner at Morsels. When they got home, his Daddy said, ‘I have a surprise for you. Guess what?’

‘A cricket set.’

‘No.’

Abhilash now knew that it had to be either a mobile or the model aeroplane. These were the only pending items that deserved the dignity of a ‘surprise’. He looked at his father. Generally he could make out what was coming from the gleam in his eyes. His father was really excited. It had to be the mobile.

‘The model aeroplane?’ Abhilash asked tentatively.

‘No,’ his father sang out and waited for Abhilash to make another guess.

‘A pair of jeans?’ There was a stretch of four months when everything time Abhilash turned up, he got a pair of jeans. It had taken him a while to gently move his father from his jeans fixation to something else.

‘No, not a pair of jeans.’ His father’s eyes never lost their gleam, until they did actually stop gleaming. ‘You do have enough clothes don’t you?’ The intense dark eyes were now full of concern.

‘Yes Daddy I do. Lots of clothes.’ It was a fact. He had a dozen uncles and aunts on each side of the family and they all made it a point to buy his clothes, as if worried that he might be naked on account of his parents’ divorce.

‘I’ve got you a Nokia mobile phone!’ his father intoned. Abhilash jumped with joy that was almost entirely genuine. A few months of lobbying and subtle hinting had finally paid off.

Abhilash paid close attention as his father showed him how his mobile worked. Of course, he had a pretty good idea, having paid close attention to the phone used by his mother, which was a Motorola.

‘Let me save your number Daddy,’ Abhilash said as soon as he managed to prise the phone from his father.

Abhilash knew his father’s mobile number by heart. ‘94471… Now I can call you from school everyday,’ he confirmed to his father.

‘Don’t get into trouble calling me,’ he father cautioned him.

‘No, I won’t.’

‘Do any of your friends have a mobile phone?’ his father asked.

Abhilash hid his irritation at being asked the same question again. ‘Geojit does, but it’s not a new phone. Preetha also has a used phone.’

‘So you will be the first one in your class to have a brand new mobile phone?’

‘Yes Daddy. Abhilash gave his father another hug.’

Sunday was a washout as Abhilash knew it would be. He took a short nap after lunch and woke up at around four. He was to leave at five so that he would be at his mother’s home before six.

His grandmother sat glumly on a rocking chair, rocking herself slowly. On the other hand, his father was a bundle of nervous energy, which he tried to dissipate by walking up and down. Every few minutes, he would ask Abhilash some inane question, which Abhilash tried to answer as best as he could.

‘Do you want to take guitar classes?’

‘I do.’

‘Why won’t your Mummy let you do that?’

‘She says I will not study if I go for guitar classes twice a week.’

‘Why can’t you take those lessons when you are with me?’

‘Because I must take those lessons at least once a week. Else, there is no point.’

‘So why can’t you… Okay, okay.. Shall I speak to your mother? No, I won’t… there’s no point. Why don’t you ask her yourself?’

‘I did.’

‘And what did she say?’

Abhilash wanted to scream at his father. Instead, he mustered together the last vestiges of his patience and said, ‘she said No. She thinks I will neglect my studies if I go for those classes.’

‘I can give you the fees for those classes. No, that won’t help.’

Finally his Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie came into the drawing room (they had been keeping away till then) and took charge.

‘He grows taller each time we see him. Soon he will be taller than his father.’

His father and grandmother were silent since agreement would mean that he was being fed properly by his mother.

‘Do you need anything?’ Vimala Auntie asked him.

Nothing! Abhilash shrugged his shoulders. Departure was always a touchy issue and there was little he could do to make it easier for anybody. If only the adults could be pragmatic about things like this instead of lugging so much excess baggage around!

Finally, Kochamma the maid who had been with the household for over thirty years announced that tea was served.

‘I don’t want any tea,’ Ammachi announced wiping away a tear.

Abhilash was embarrassed. He always felt that way when any grown-up cried. It was the same with his maternal Ammachi who broke into tears every now and then when discussing her daughter’s predicament.

Never mind Ammae, let’s all have tea,’ Jeboy uncle declared.

They trooped into the dining room and took their places. There were mutton puffs, banana chips, pancakes, avalose undas, shortbreads and a big bunch of small yellow plantains.

Abhilash was hungry and he dug in with vigour. His father, Jeboy uncle and Vimala Auntie sat around nibbling.

‘Where’s Hannah?’ Abhilash asked, in between mouthfuls.

‘She’s still sleeping.’ Vimala Auntie told him. Abhilash was irritated. Why couldn’t Hannah have the grace to wake up and say goodbye?

‘Wake her up!’ he told Vimala Auntie.

‘She fell asleep at three thirty. Let her sleep for some more time,’ Jeboy uncle replied good humouredly.

Abhilash stopped eating. He was almost full, but if Hannah had been brought down to say good bye, he would have eaten a bit more.

‘Have you had enough?’

‘Yes,’ he said sulkily.

‘What’s the matter?’ his father.

‘I don’t want to go back Daddy!’ Abhilash burst into tears at that. He felt a bit guilty for a very brief while. No, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Admitting that he was bugged with Hannah for not being awake would have sounded very childish.

His father hugged him, put his down and walked out of the room for a few minutes. Abhilash knew he was crying and felt very bad. Vimala Auntie wiped away a tear. Even Kochamma who was standing in a corner started to sob. Jeboy uncle was the only dry-eyed person in that room.

‘Ten minutes to five. You might as well say goodbye to everyone,’ Jeboy uncle told him.

Abhilash washed his hands in the washbasin that stood in a corner and went to the drawing room where Ammachi was still rocking herself on the rocking chair.

‘Ammachi, I am leaving.’

‘Moné, take care of yourself. Study well. Don’t …’ The rest of Ammachi’s advice was lost in a sudden outbreak of tears.

Abhilash turned on his heels and went back to the dining room. Thankfully Jeboy uncle made the rest of the good byes easier.

‘Give your Daddy a hug. Yes, there, now a kiss for Vimala Auntie. Good. A hug for me.’

Abhilash did particularly want to hug Jeboy uncle since he didn’t seem to be as much affected by his departure as the others were. Nevertheless he hugged Jeboy uncle and he was done.

As expected, his Dad pressed a wad of notes into his pocket. Yes, he knew his father paid his mother a fixed amount of money every month for his upkeep, but this pocket money was strictly a deal between them.

Finally Abhilash was in the car. As the car started moving, he quickly waved goodbye to his father and the others and settled down. They turned a corner and he could no longer see his Daddy’s house. He took out the wad of notes from his pocket and counted them. The usual one thousand rupees in hundred rupee notes. He put five hundred rupees back into his shirt’s pocket and the rest into his trousers’ pocket. His mother expected him to be given some pocket money and she would ask him what he got and take it from him. He would part with the money in his shirt’s pocket. The balance would be added to the pile he hid in the cavity he had dug out in the Rabbit.

Abhilash took out his new mobile phone. His father had assured him that he needn’t worry about the bill, which would be sent to his father. The SIM was in his father’s name anyway.

He dialled Shibu’s home number and got a message that suggested that he had the wrong number. He dialled again and got the same result. Ah! He had to add Kochi’s STD code before dialling the number, didn’t he? 0484… he dialled and soon Shibu’s mother answered the phone.

‘Is Shibu at home?’

‘Shibu? Do you know how I am calling you?’

By the time he hung up, Abhilash had made Shibu very jealous. He then dialled Junaid. Unfortunately Junaid was not at home, Junaid’s mother informed him.

‘Are you acting in the play as well?’ Junaid’s mother asked him.

Oh yes, he was.

Junaid’s mother knew all about the play. She was so much looking forward to seeing the play when it was staged in around six week’s time.

Should he invite his father to come and watch his play? If he did, his mother would be mighty bugged. If he didn’t, his father would be very sad. Not angry, but sad. Later year, he had wanted to invite his father to his school for Sports Day, but his mother had thrown such a big tantrum that he hadn’t.

Sports Day was no big deal. He was not particularly good at any sport and he hadn’t won any prizes. He knew he wouldn’t. But the play was different. He had the second most important role and he had never acted in a play before. His father would be thrilled to bits if only he knew. He almost broke down as he imagined how hurt his father would be if he ever came to knew. But he resisted the tears. His father was no saint. Didn’t he hit his mother so often when they all lived together? Of course, his mother had once flung a dish full of curry at his father. And his father’s mother used to crib every time his mother went out. His mother had once called his father a bastard. Some of the memories were a bit vague, but Abhilash had no doubt that they were all a bunch of nasty idiots who deserved no better.

He fished the mobile out of his pocket and dialled Sanjiv’s number.