T r e a d Softly... YOU MIGHT TRIP ON TEXT

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reflections On Bureaucracy From A Hot Bench

I was at the RTO this morning, and found so many touts who operate the shaky area between user and officialdom. They are the open faces of "corruption" or "bribery" or second channels that we all talk about. If only we could remove corruption, we say.

I was sitting there waiting endlessly for my turn to come and I thought, why not legalise the tout so that the "extra" we pay out becomes not "bribery" but fees? If there are service providers who run around and procure things for those who are willing to pay for them, then it would be easier to come down upon official bribery. But then, I thought, what about meagre salaries and bad working conditions that make these officials demand bribes in the first place?

If you think down the line, following each of these arguments to their natural conclusions, we find that the only answer is: people should stick to their jobs and do them as well as possible. They should earn their salaries. Which means, if everyone from the Minister to the lowest level clerk did his/ her job with honesty and diligence, and not be swayed by extraneous considerations, the country would perk up and things would get done and extra money needn't be siphoned off and everyone would get their requirements attended to, and we wouldn't need to be sitting on a bench in the height of summer, distracting ourselves from profuse perspiration by reflecting philosophically about bureaucracy and politics and the good of our good nation.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The View From The Other Side(s)

"And so it is no surprise when a few pages later a girl’s ghost from the past disturbs the psyche of the protagonist. It is time then to settle for what Varma thinks is a detection set-up. But the strong hints get to be so loud that we are never surprised by anything that happens. Will there be a replay of Maria’s tragedy?"

"Raja tells us too little, until it is too late. Even the murkiest mystery arises from facts, and our interest in his situation could only really be piqued if we knew something solid about it. But his narrative, though rich in thought and observation, is short on facts. We are led to a conclusion without ever being primed for it. And when we finally understand, not just the secret of Raja's pathology, but the bare details of it, we wish we'd been told before."

These are crucial extracts from two good reviews of Maria's Room. The first appeared in the Sunday Herald and was written by noted critic and academician Prema Nandakumar. The other's from The Hindu's Literary Review, and is by Aditya Sudarshan, a young writer whose first novel was published last year.

The first complains that I give away so much in the story that there's no suspense left. The second says that I give so little away that it isn't fair to the reader. The rest of the reviews-- both of them-- have fairly nice things to say. Aditya calls it an atmospheric, highly literary novel. And Prema says: "Varma is a scene-watcher alright and has a way of coming up often with sentences we like to caress."

But their criticism leaves me confused, in complete contrast to each other. How will I learn from criticism? :-(

here's an interview from livemint.com and a review from the Sunday Tribune's Spectrum.

Friday, April 09, 2010

After the March

After last month's march, it's been a relatively quiet April week.

Jan end saw the launch of Maria's Room in Chennai. It was a fulfilling affair. Despite the fact that invite cards got lost in transit-- and consequently the organisers felt there wouldn't be much sense in asking for a bigger room-- so many turned up that a large number of people had to stand throughout, and I felt bad for them so I too kept standing (though, of course, I didn't tell them it was because of that!) There was so much fun and atmosphere that I thought it was a dream launch for Maria.

In Feb, my father-in-law passed away. He'd celebrated his 80th birthday last November. He watched the morning's spiritual programme on TV, lay down to rest for 15 mts before his coffee came, and didn't get up after that. An admirable way to go, no pain or helplessness, just a soft slipping away; but a rude and lasting shock for those he left behind. There'd been then a mad, long trip cutting across three states, on fabulous 4-laned highways, reserve forests and mountain slopes. It was mad all right. Unable to procure train/ flight tickets, we hired a car and drove to Kerala. We reached at 3 a.m. The cremation was already over by then. And then my son wondered if I could drop him in Bangalore. So, a bit after lunch the following day, we were on the road again. Through Mudhumalai and Bandhipur forests, and just before midnight, had dinner at a fabulous place en route called Kamat's, just after Chennapatna. My son kept telling me, we'll stop there, and the hours kept going, and hunger kept gnawing, and finally, when we reached, it was well worth the wait. And we reached Bangalore past midnight. My cousin Balan was kind enough to open the door for us with a smile, but then his house has always been a haven in Bangalore for us.

The day after I returned to Chennai, on Feb 19th there was a story-telling session for Scholastic at Landmark in the Citi Centre mall. There were six of us story-tellers. And so many kids with blankets and lit candles lolling on the carpet looking ruthlessly sweet, and their parents and curious onlookers, and I had to rouse myself to melodramatic moments to make a mark on these kids whose attention would only focus on anything above the ordinary. I certainly did try, but my friend Shobha Vishwanath (of Karadi Tales) and her son Kaushik stole the show, entertaining the kids and us. It was a very satisfying evening and, despite those tempting blankets, I don't think any of the kids dozed off.

28th Feb, there were two events! Which is most unusual for me, since even one event generally feels like too many. The first was in the afternoon at Loyola College, I was chief guest at the valedictory event of their Lit Fest. Though they were behind time, they graciously permitted me to address the students before the finale, so I could leave in time. Staying far away and having an evening event made me a bit flighty. But being with students is always fulfilling, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I even joked around with students from MCC, my old college. In the evening, the British Council sent a car to pick me up and took me to the Landmark book-store in Nungambakkam, where two British writers, China Mieville and Mark Billingham, were reading from their books as part of the BC's Lit Sutra. (pic above) I was the moderator, but as it often happens (notably during a Shashi Taroor book function some years ago, when I quickly yielded my "moderation" to the then diplomat's exuberance), it happened this time as well!

In March, first there was a reading of Maria's Room in Bangalore. I was reading along with d├ębutante writer Mathew Menacherry. We got along fine, and I guess we both gave the audience our funnies' worth. Bangalore readings and events (even when my play Midnight Hotel was staged there) are always great because I've so many close relatives there that it becomes like a jolly, intimate festival. The next day, Mathew and I were together again at the launch of another book, an anthology, and we were supposed to do another "talk show", but I didn't enjoy this one very much, probably since the event achieved a breakthrough in my afternoon nap. But I was so happy with friends at this event.

I went to Kerala then to be with Geeta, and it was a quiet and unhurried few days, and I could also do some reading and writing. The day after I returned, I was chief guest at the Ethiraj College's national Literature Conference. I'd sent in my keynote address earlier, so I was at ease, but the speech sounded too stilted, and I knew I needed to be more "then and there" when I delivered it. It was a wonderful morning, and an academic atmosphere that I enjoyed after a very long time. I met Prema Nandakumar there (she was part of a panel discussion) and she hinted that she'd be reviewing Maria's Room as well (she'd reviewed Lament of Mohini for the Deccan Herald years ago).

Maria's had three reviews to date; at least those are the ones I've been able to access. Asian Age, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. The DH and Hindu reviews held diametrically opposite views! One said I'd dropped so many clues that the ending was no surprise at all. The other said that I'd sprung such a surprise at the end without at all leading up to it that it wasn't funny!

I'm waiting for more reviews!

As for Maria's Delhi launch, it was planned for April 10th, and I spread the word, but there was some problem with the venue, and now it's been postponed to April 21st at the Full Circle Book shop. Writer Jaishree Mishra will be reading along with me.

So let's see how it goes.