The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

This is not a happy book, but it is not a sad one either. One can read it is as a guide map to the major civil and political movements taking place in 21st century India. The Kashmir insurgency, the 2002 Gujarat riots and the left-wing extremism in central India form crucial plot points in this story. Other political movements, the ones against big hydroelectric power projects for example, make cameo appearances. I was slightly surprised to find no mention of the insurgency movements in North-east India, considering the wide scope of this book.

The most remarkable aspect of this book, for me, was Anjum; the presence of a transgender protagonist. Not only does Anjum transition from male to female, but also she belongs to the minority Muslim community. By no means can I claim to have read a lot,  but a quick Google search reveals no mainstream book featuring a transgender protagonist. Definitely not in India. And you can’t get more mainstream than Roy, Man Booker Award winner who also features in this year’s longlist.

The action is divided between Old Delhi’s Chitli Qabar and the Kashmir valley. While the Delhi section is concerned with Anjum’s journey to find peace within herself and her world, the Kashmir section is a story of the insurgency. Tilottama, the second protagonist, writes a Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar, a macabre documentation of the atrocities committed on the civilian population. She also devises the Kashmiri-English Alphabet to show how the warped the idea of normalcy can become if one gives it enough time.

This book gave me a lot to think about. I kept wondering, while reading the Kashmir portion, about the line between truth and fiction. The bit about the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen is true, and so is the practice of men being paraded, during cordon-and-search operations, in front of jeeps with their headlights on full beam, forming a kind of one-way mirror where they could be (mis)identified by informants sitting next to the driver. But is it also true that army men sell weapons and ammunition to the very militants they are supposed to be fighting? Or that the 2014 floods were used by the army as a photo-op and they didn’t really help the Kashmiri civilians if the media weren’t around to broadcast it?

Another sentence that disturbed me was in the preface to the book, about how the vultures are dying to satiate urban India’s appetite for icecream and milkshakes. I have been thinking long and hard about turning vegan and reading this line made me feel even more guilty for continuing to consume dairy products.

This book is not an easy read and it isn’t meant to be. A less charitable title could have been A Litany of Sorrows. It’s meant to make us think about where we are heading. And we have Roy’s beautiful prose to carry us through.

“The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”

 

Book: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Author: Arundhati Roy
Location: Delhi, Kashmir
Language: English

Reading Around India

Sometime last year I came across a book review of Ann Morgan’s Reading the World. Morgan spent the entire of 2012 reading a book from each of the 196 countries of the world and then wrote about her experiences. Deciding which regions to consider as countries, sourcing books from remote African and Pacific nations, the challenges posed by translated texts, the cultural hegemony of authors writing in English, and North American and British ones furthermore. I was intrigued and started compiling a list of the nationalities of all authors I had read. Not unsurprisingly, it was predominantly American, British and Indian.

Sometime before this book review, I had also come across the 666 reading challenge at bookcrossing.com. The challenge requires one to read a book from six countries from each of the six continents within the span of 365 days. That means a total of 36 books from different regions of the world. I started this challenge this year and six and a half months in, have managed to read a book from each of the six continents (apart from finishing the European section and being one book short of completing the Asian one).

Wholly due to these two reading projects, I read my first books from Africa and South America this year. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not my first book from the African continent but it made a point that stayed with me. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. In their own way, and following their own agenda. As responsible consumers of literature, it behooves us to read authentic first-person accounts or stories rather than an outsider’s version (imagined or otherwise) of what has happened. Just as we travel to remote and offbeat locations to discover more about the world and ourselves, we should also be reading books written in and by people on the margins in order to widen our horizons, along with providing a platform for these voices. I was in my late teens when I realised that almost all books I read were authored by Americans or Britons. Thus began a conscious effort to read more by Indian authors writing in English. I am now in my late twenties when again it dawned on me that almost all of my reading is confined to the US and Northern Europe. Hence a conscious decision to stick with these two challenges and diversify what I read.

A few days I came up with another reading challenge for myself (since I obviously need to add more complexity to my book selection policy!). Why not apply the idea behind Ann Morgan’s literary exploration to the country I call home? India has 36 administrative divisions and despite being bilingual I rarely read Indian fiction. Most of the fiction books I read are based in Mumbai or Delhi. So starting this month, I will be reading a book based in each state/union territory of India, preferably written by an Indian author, whether written in English/Hindi or translated into Hindi/English, and blogging about it. I might also review any compelling book I read as part of the other two reading challenges.

Looking forward to hearing your views and recommendations.

February 14

All my Valentine’s Days till date have been forgettable. On most days I don’t believe in love, unless it is directed towards the sun or ramen noodles. Last year was a little out of the ordinary. I didn’t have class that day so came out of my dorm room in the afternoon to participate in a Narrative Comprehension study (great way to earn cash when living a student life). Usually the kids in the college were an uncommunicative, anti-social lot but this time I sort of got talking to the guy conducting the study. He told me about an open secret of the Uni; a wooden bench located over an air vent in the quad. And how he could spend days on that bench, even in the snow. Minutes later I was sitting on the warm bench, enjoying the oasis of warmth in the midst of a desert of cold, and that fleeting connection between two human beings. I didn’t sit on that bench again. In the following months, I didn’t see him sitting on that bench either.

Many weeks ago, I came across a Twitter challenge asking the Uni alums/students to write an ultra-short story about the Uni. Up till then, I was blissfully unaware of Hemingway’s six word story- “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I wrote one about that afternoon– Rosenwald’s warm bench brought them closer. I hope you have had far more rewarding February 14ths.

More six word stories can be found here and here.

23 things in 2013

A list of the “first time” things I did in 2013—

1. Hiked in the Grand Canyon (first day of the year).
2. Biked on the Chicago Lakefront trail.
3. Couchsurfed.
4. Hosted a couchsurfer.
5. Saw a celebrity on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Helen Mirren).
6. Saw/heard an opera—Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
7. Met the new love of my life—shiitake mushrooms.
8. Took a week-long solo trip.
9. Taught myself (with the help of two friends) how to ice skate.
10. Saw a play—Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
11. Went for a music concert—Mika.
12. Worked part-time as a tutor and proctor.
13. Paid income tax.
14. Attended a live music performance (BB Kings Blues Club, and House of Blues).
15. Saw from the outside both of Obama’s houses (White House and the one in Hyde Park).
16. Went to Disneyworld.
17. Went to beaches on the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean.
18. Ate at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown on the Chinese New Year.
19. Participated in a pride demonstration outside the US Supreme Court.
20. Saw the moon, Saturn, Uranus and some random stars through a telescope.
21. Experienced really cold temperatures (-20ºC = 4ºF).
22. Sent postcards to people I don’t know (via Postcrossing).
23. Started a blog!

Random Acts of Kindness

I love food. Love buying it, love cooking it, and love eating. Maybe this is the reason why I don’t like cooking only for myself. As a result, I often invite people over for meals. If you know me (and I like you), you have definitely eaten something cooked by me. The 3/4ths of a year I spent in Chicago was filled with many such get-togethers. Once I had invited my Chinese friends over and was waiting for them in the lobby so I could let them in—International House, the dorm where I stayed, was entry by key access. I-House also organised a lot of cultural events, open to all, and on such occasions the front doors were kept unlocked. Which meant I should have been waiting for their text/call instead of them but then we wouldn’t have this story. So there I was, hovering like a poltergeist, when a lady came out of the Assembly Hall (where the talk/show was being held) and walked towards me. I was prepared to be all ghostlike and pretend I wasn’t there because I’m one those people, the ones you see on movie and TV screens, the ones who turn around to see who the person waving at them is waving at. She asked where she could find drinking water. I told her about the drinking fountain in the dining area (I’m not rude; lack of ‘normal’ amounts of confidence makes me do ‘inappropriate’ things sometimes). She wanted to eat her medicines and asked again, even started to give me money so I could buy her a bottle of water. I walked to my locker, took out a glass, filled it with water, and brought it back to her. She was thankful. I hung around because I wasn’t sure if she would drink the entire thing then, ask for more, throw the glass away, take it with her, or just because I didn’t know what the next proper response was. Then I left. My friends reached. They brought food with them (they never listen!). We had a great time. Sometimes they would forget about me and start jabbering away in Mandarin so I would go back to my favourite pastime of observing people, freed from the obligation of taking part in a conversation. After I had said goodbye to them and was walking back, I crossed the place where I had met the lady. My glass was still there. Underneath it was a note.

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For some reason (okay, I know what reason), the janitorial staff at I-House is either Hispanic or African-American. During my first week there, I once shared an elevator with a Mexican expat/naturalized US citizen(?). He started to speak to me in Spanish before my clueless expression gave me away. We went on to become good friends. I would always say hola when I spotted him, regardless of the fact that we didn’t have much to say to each other. Everything that could be said had already been spoken. All the Spanish phrases he had taught me had been endlessly repeated. He was assigned my floor so I would know it was him whenever I heard cleaning sounds in the loo. On one such loo visit, he told me about the bad cold and headache he was suffering through and I offered to give him some medicine I had carried from home (my mum is a doctor; I’ve been self-medicating from a long, long time). He was super pleased and thankful but then he was always super cheerful, even while complaining about being ill. I met him a few days later and he was better, and feeling super-super-pleased, so much so that he was telling the other cleaning staff member about the huge “favour” I had done him (I ended up giving medicine to the other guy too). He then invited me to share his lunch and I politely refused (note to self: do not pass up opportunities to have good food!). I had no idea how thankful he was until I reached my room to find a box of chocolate precariously balanced on the door handle.

I don’t quite know how to deal with people thanking me. My native language doesn’t even have a word for “welcome”. My mum gave me a gentle ribbing for my medicine-for-chocolate programme when I told her about it. In the end, it was J who had done a kindness to me. Like the lady with the tall glass of water. Both these thank you notes made me feel like I mattered. That at a certain point in time, I had made a meaningful, positive difference to someone’s life. The number of people who have been kind to me is way larger than the number of people who I have been helpful to. I think this is the way I should (mis?)represent it in my head, it inspires me to keep trying to level the score. Every time I feel used or exploited by a friend or family member, I think of my friend who gave me her pack of Oreo biscuits during a lunch talk because the only thing being served was pepperoni pizza (ah! the trials of being a vegetarian in a carnivorous world). The same friend who, within two hours of talking to me, gave me a free ticket to the Field Museum (a place I wouldn’t have visited otherwise). The woman in Boston who stopped me and offered to give me directions when I was lost in the rain. The man on the platform in a Frankfurt station who stopped me from getting on the wrong train, not to the airport, when I was saddled with two heavy suitcases and the worry of getting them out of there. The young girl at the Ben Gurion airport bus terminal who stopped me from getting on the wrong bus (there was more trouble later when I finally reached Herzliya). All these people who helped a stranger, without being asked, without expecting anything in return. In doing a kindness to other people, you are doing a kindness to yourself. Because what goes around, comes around. Be nice to everyone, even if they are not nice to you, because someone is waiting for the chance to be nice to you. Random kindness is the most contagious form there is so let’s just infect everybody. Make this world a kinder place.

 

If you feel warm and fuzzy after reading this (or otherwise), please tell me about a time when somebody random was nice to you (in a comment below).   

It was a White Night—Part I

I was standing in ankle deep snow, trying to gain some semblance of understanding. The moon was hanging overhead, a luminous orb streaming light in my direction. The straps of my backpack were cutting through my shoulders but I was too cold to feel any pain. There were no streetlights because there were no streets. Just snow covered pathways leading into darkness. Not a single soul in sight. But I was not alone in this nightmare. My friend was a few paces behind me; same backpack on her shoulders, same confusion in her mind.

Self-recriminatory thoughts formed a line in my head and marched in a loop. Why did I choose to come to the Grand Canyon in end-December? Why did I not reach before sunset? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s trailer-couch? What if s/he turned out to be a psychotic mass murderer? What if s/he was not at home? What if s/he did not have place for us? Why didn’t I have a plan B? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s couch? Which idiot chooses the Grand Canyon, in winter, for the first couchsurfing experience? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s couch? Why was I doing this to myself?

Pushing aside the voice in my head, I tried to concentrate on the task ahead. Baby steps. Find the trailer village. Find the street. Find the trailer. Knock. Wait for the door to open. Let’s hope not to rinse and repeat.

It was cold, I was hungry, my friend was very nervous, I had the contact number on my phone but the battery was dead. Staying rooted to the spot was not helping. So we decided to move. Chose a random direction and started walking. In the dim moonlight we could make out the silhouettes of RVs and trailers. The wooden sign boards, half buried in snow, displayed an alphabet. This couldn’t be right. I was looking for street numbers. Maybe we were in the wrong trailer village. How many trailer villages were there? Will the shuttle still be running at this time? It then struck me, clear as the night sky we were standing under—what I had assumed to be a Roman numeral was actually a Latin alphabet. Armed with this knowledge and the hope that I wouldn’t end up sleeping in the snow tonight, I started walking. Though the snow, in the dark night, shivering with cold and fear of the unknown. Reached the end of the lane, made a turn, found the wrong street. Cut through the space between the trailers, frantically counting all the boxes, looking for the wooden sign boards. Finally reached the trailer we thought was The One, white and silent. Jumped the fence, managed not to fall flat on my face. Still silence. It seemed like no one was home. All I could hear was my heart hammering in my head. I took in a deep breath and knocked.

 

Written in response to the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge-

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/