Friday, September 28, 2007

Magic in the pot

Walked into the loo bleary-eyed last morning feeling bitterly tired (am not a morning person) and saw a gorgeous dragonfly on the door frame. It had lovely diaphanous wings and a red, lipstick red, deep scarlet body. Like a bloodied, aerodynamic dart. I called n and she dashed in. It was exactly at her eye level and she was thrilled. I wondered aloud why it had come there (because though we have lots of pretty birds outside, even owls, coppersmiths and golden orioles, I've never spotted a dragonfly before). So question asked, and big silence followed. I sleepily formed the thought in my head, 'It's landed to die of course, poor thing...' when n pops up with a "It's come to do susu." Of course, why else would it be in the loo?

This morning, she was shown a snail in the loo, a medium-sized, active little bugger with a tingling pair of antennas. Last night Amit spotted it on one wall (how had it reached the second floor, for god's sake?). It had circumnavigated the loo - if you can do that with a rectangle - and n spotted it this morning on the ceiling. Now she thinks of the loo as an extension of her park, Diamond Garden, with the gogalgaays and the dragonflys. (Gogalgaay is marathi for snail - I just love the word. So much more evocative than the English!)

Why the sudden influx of the insect world? Amit's theory is that maybe the white light of the new CFL is attracting them. Or maybe we've had them before but never paid them attention - this is the first time we're making a really big deal bec of n, our captive audience. You are welcome to add some of your own!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The penny drops...

For years I've wondered why librarians and figures of authority associated with books are so brusque with me. They LOOK at me, and in that instant, they seem to spot the inner space-cadet. I am rapidly filed away - I think - as the person most likely to read a book on the bus and dreamily leave it behind; the one who's going to shove a book behind the bed and leave it there two months after the due date; the one who appears to love books but seems to see them more as friends she can eat and drink and sleep with, rather than as teachers who you sit with primly at the table.

But I've never clearly understood why they hate careless people like me so. Stupid question of course. One with an answer that I am aware of intellectually, but am unable to accept at the emotional level. Put me in a large library with an ocean of books behind the counter, and I always bridle and cringe at the same time, feeling a mix of guilt and anger. Almost instinctively I start thinking, Shit, what have I lost
now; and
why-the-hell-are-they-so-anal-can't-they-smile?

Finally I've sort of got a peep into the archetype of the librarian. I re-read Umberto Eco's
The Name of the Rose after many, many years, and had this eureka moment when I understood and - more importantly - accepted the Dirty Looks given to me by all librarians past.

Eco's book is a detective story set in a medieval abbey where monks spend their days illustrating manuscripts in a large scriptorium. The most fascinating parts of the novel (for me ) are the ones that dwell on the monks who illuminate the manuscripts carefully - with gold, silver, jewel-bright colors, strange figures and animals. The scriptorium and the library hold precious books. They are painstakingly hand-crafted, and are therefore irreplaceable and priceless.

The library at the Abbey is also a fulcrum of seething emotions. On the one hand, there is the fact that it is a cleverly-constructed lode of knowledge (it's built like a maze and only the librarian and his assistant are privy to the route through it). It is a store-house of learning, but there is a school of thought within the abbey which feels that while books are precious, what they contain is not suitable for everyone.
Knowledge and learning untempered by piety are considered dangerous. And intellectual joy and pride are both viewed with clear suspicion.

Plus of course, each hand-crafted, hand-written and hand-bound manuscript is a delicate treasure. Too much handling might destroy them. Effectively, the library is a place that hoards books for themselves and for the future. It is not storing up on them to help young monks broaden their minds (and perhaps their desires as well).

So the monks need permission from the librarian and sometimes the abbot as well before they can read a book. The young men seethe with intellectual curiosity and many resent the system of restricted access to the library. So much so that they are willing to trade sexual favours to be able to read certain books.
To frighten the curious young illustrator-writers and keep them from exploring the library at night, it is locked and hallucinogenic herbs are burnt. Rumours of ghosts-of-librarians-past are fed.

Central to all of this ferment is the librarian, a man who must be well-versed in Arabic, Greek and Latin to qualify for the job. He needs a prodigious memory and must guard his treasure passionately. The librarians are next-in-line to becoming the abbot and as the abbey is a rich, powerful one, the post is obviously covetted. Young monks and old lobby for the post. Eco's librarian, Malachi, is a clever creation - a complex man who is insecure, has power, is sexually promiscuous and not-very-learned.

I think centuries of not being able to be sure that what you write can and will be preserved in handy, sturdy hardback (or now, soft copy), has imprinted on us a fear of and adoration for the written word, and for the books where they are collected. Though often full of abstruse theological debate (which you can skim through shamelessly), The Name...
puts into perspective our general tendency to regard books as things that are to be prized, to be cherished, hoarded, and generally be considered irreplaceable. Printing has been with us for a couple of centuries, but it obviously hasn't penetrated our racial subconscious yet!

Coming back to my original point: The Name... made the librarian's anxiety clear to me. If books are fragile treasures, and if I were responsible for tens of thousands of them, I don't think I'd want the likes of me to hang around either!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Barn Owl's Dismal Capers

I was very excited when Suniti lent me her copy of The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. In fact it was around Hansa's birthday, and I wanted to rush out and get her a copy because she'd seen it somewhere and admired the drawings. Also because it seemed quite interesting to begin with. The bookstore didn't have it when I checked. And thank god for that. Because cross the first 20 pages, and the book loses its act completely.

The story is a retelling of the legend of the Wandering Jew. Here he lives in Calcutta of the 1700s as Abravanel Ben Obadiah Ben Aharon Kabariti. He records all the scandals of contemporary Cal - especially those of the British administrators - in a book called The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. Pablo, our hero, wants to find the copy that his grandfather had picked up once in Paris. At his grandfather's death, the book was given away, and Pablo sets about looking for it in Calcutta. He meets many people in the process and this story is a little about each of them. Interesting premise, interesting beginning, but somehow, it doesn't come together at all. And it goes on for a massive 280 pages.

The problem with The Barn Owl..., I think, is something that is common to many urban Indian writers (and here I count myself in too). We have, I feel, a multiplicity of stimuli, and we want to bring it all in. Unlike people who live in sanitized societies, living in India offers you so much everyday madness to play with, that you can't bear to leave anything out. And I suspect the temptation to do so is higher in a form like the graphic novel, since it's so visual and thrives on the kitschy, the slightly batty.

In The Barn Owl... it feels as if every thing that has ever struck Banerjee as odd or delightfully eccentric about Calcutta is brought in - irrespective of its role in the larger narrative. Yes, cities have their incredibly fascinating idiosyncrasies, but does it all have to come together, like, right now?

After a point, each vignette is treated in the same way. New characters are introduced and described and located every 5 or 6 pages, and then the story carries on to another character. You feel like there's going to be a crackling crescendo at the end, but there's just a whisper of drama there. In fact, hardly any at all.

It's all very wry and ironic, but finally, it simply doesn't pull together and become that convincing story.

About the visuals: opinion in this family is divided. Banerjee, though inventive and well-schooled in the storyboard-like delineation of a graphic novel, is not a skilled artist. His drawing is honestly a bit amateurish. Amit, as an artist and illustrator, can't tolerate bad drawing in a graphic novel, because well, you wouldn't put up with bad writing in a prose novel, would you? I see his point. But initially, I was like, ok, so it's not great drawing, but I'm all for democracy in these matters. Like, I loved the mixing of old photos of Cal with illustrations. And I admired the cinematic feel in general.

In a graphic novel, I can look at the drawings as being a part of the narrative and therefore not to be considered separately (unless of course the illustrator is so good that the work becomes art!). The bigger deal for me is the story. So long as the visual style merges with the story-telling, or at least, so long as the visuals tell the story well, it's ok with me.

At the end of The Barn Owl... though, I felt massively irritated because the story hadn't worked and neither had the art. It just seemed so self-indulgent and vapid. Amit has seen reviews of Kashmir Pending, a graphic novel published by Banerjee and he says it's a whole lot better than this one - at least in terms of skill. I certainly hope so.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Want to be put off buying books?

Here's how you do it in two easy steps:

1. Enter your local branch of Crossword.
2. Engage with any of the cretins on call - the sales staff. Their daftness, rudeness, lack of awareness, will make you want to turn and flee. Or it will make you want to do them such physical harm that the cops will have to lock you in.

At Crossword they've never ever given discounts (unless it's during an annual sale). Because, after all, you are paying for the experience, the aahm-bey-ahnce. What with the air con and the coffee-shop attached, suddenly, it seemed nice to be able to do frilly stuff while browsing for books. And what's a 10 to 20% discount as compared to that?

Where Crossword - like most chain stores - suffered a bit was in their choice of staff. They hired pretty kids - chirpy and bright as buttons, but they weren't you know, book lovers. Chalo, so not everyone lives to read, ok, and you put up with a degree of ignorance. In fact, till about 6 to 8 months back, the Crossword Ghatkopar staff was decent, vaguely knew where the books were, and were at least enthusiastic enough to try and find you stuff. And more importantly, they weren't rude creeps.

But recently, I think there's been some policy-and-management change, which has been reflected immediately in the quality of the people they hire. At least this is the case at the Crossword in Shopper's Stop, Ghatkopar. Boy, I never thought I'd miss the button kids, but compared to the new bunch of yobos they've got, those kids were great! We had a shockingly unpleasant and painful experience there two days back. Don't want to go into the gory details here, but suffice it to say that the staff were nothing short of crass, ill-mannered louts.

The dip has happened ever since the Shopper's Stop guys bought up the place. At least in Ghatkopar, the staff are: 1. lazy, and they don't believe in looking for a book beyond checking their database - and as everyone knows, databases are not always a perfect reflection of what's on the shelves (I say this because I've had this experience in a Crossword); 2. ill-mannered louts who don't have basic skills like communication and - I'm so sorry to even say this - decent manners; 3. just not aware of or or interested in books.

I don't blame them for this. But what were their employers thinking when they hired them to man bookshops? Having hired them, how about training and / or orienting them a bit? Or say, giving them a crash-course in basic courtesy? And one in understanding books - not the literary criticism stuff, mind you, but where they are stacked and how they are to be referenced on the shelves?

You go to a small book store like Fort Book Distributor or Strand or even our Chembur-station Jayesh Book Store, and you suddenly re-realize that hey, you don't need coffee to buy a book. Because you get decent service, a discount and generally, a pleasant feeling of being attended to. Mind you, the salespeople here aren't MAs in Eng Litt either. They are aware of what they have in their shelves, and want to make sure - or at least try - that you get what you are looking for.

I called the Crossword shop-in-charge later that day and complained. She was pained and appalled at her staff - I think. And offered to come over and apologize. See, this is where people lose perspective. Can you imagine the busy, highly dignified manager at the Strand desk offering to do something so daft as come over and apologise to a customer? No, because they do their jobs all right, and don't behave like jerks in general. Cussed they might be, creeps they are not.

I wish chain store managers had an awareness of what a bookshop needs to be to its customers. It needs to be no-fuss, it needs to be a wee bit generous, it needs to have staff who at least know where the goods are. That's it. Nothing more.

(Ooh, on a prophetic note, I had a dream, just two nights before this incident, that for some reason, a Japanese guy was willing to open up a bookstore with us in Chembur! Cost no issue, he said. I woke up to change n's soaked PJs thinking busily to myself: ok, we'll buy the paper bags which they make from recycled newspaper at Sevadan, and not keep any plastic, and have an old-books bargain counter. And what shall we call it... etc. I switched on the light in the loo and told myself to calm down, it was a dream. Blah. My subconscious is getting too literal. )