Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Ramesh found...

For years now, Ramesh has had my loyal custom. Back in the '80s, when I first spotted him outside Ambedkar Udyan, I was a humongously fat teenager, and he was a really thin young man in his 20s. He had strangely 'new' looking books. Unlike most street book sellers, he wasn't selling used books. His were all new, all titles that would - for sure - excite my young reluctant reader of a brother. I didn't know then that what he was doing then was selling the West's inventoried books - or books that are 'remaindered' in the warehouses, and are later auctioned off to distributors. Everyone in Mumbai has a favourite book guy. Ramesh, in Chembur, happens to be mine.

So The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Isaac Asimov's Futuredays (cigarette card representations of what people in fin de siecle France - 1899 - thought life held in store for the world in 2000; each card was wondrously illustrated and juxtaposed with a brief discussion of why it was plausible or not by Asimov. The best part - this me panting with excitement - was how he found the set of cards in a toy shop in Paris); the book of the movie Young Sherlock Holmes; and many more that I've forgotten about - and regrettably, lost.

Cut to 2001, Chakala, in deep dark Andheri East, walking around with Amit. I'm a lot less humungous, and we are crawling the lanes of our new-found suburb, trying to find something other than shops full of Chinese-made figurines to stare at. I see a book seller with books like The Animal of Farthing Wood and a series that has English being taught using Asterix comics. Delighted I look up at the seller, and whatdjaknow. It's Ramesh, plumper, older. We both grin and laugh and get down to the business of books.

2004, Chembur, and there's Ramesh again suddenly at his usual spot near Ambedkar Udyan. Friendship reaffirmed, we buy tons of books from him, and finally, give him lots of our pulp crime novels. We find copies of Hoot with him, and colouring books, and more novels, and more vintage children's books. Last week was a bonanza though. Look at all that he had for us!

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco, the story of a Russian migrant whose mother and extended family make a quilt using old clothes belonging to relatives.
The quilt sees many generations of her family thru many rites of passage. Incidentally, this is a signed copy! Colour is used discretely - only to make the quilt sparkle. The b&w people are beautifully detailed.

Stone Soup by Jonathan Muth, an interpretation of the European folk trickster story. Muth sets it in China, and gives us some unforgettably minimal images.
Three monks reach a village. It seems sullen somehow. We are told that this is a village that often faces famine. The villagers are weary and wary. The adults keep to themselves. We meet the Scholar, the Seamstress, the Doctor, the Carpenter.
The tricksters attract a curious little girl in bright yellow, who follows them and is a via media to reach the villagers. She is a quiet and insidious counterpoint to the adults. Untouched by the knowledge of famine -and deprivation, she helps the strangers fetch more and more to throw into the pot.
And finally, that night, a grand celebration, where the soup is eaten.

Two of the books were on the American Civil Rights movement. The first is How four friends stood up by sitting down by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
Four American college students went to the counter of Woolworths on February 1, 1960, and ordered coffee and a doughnut. They were never served. Integration and how it must have felt when it was still a churning, disturbing process make up the book's narrative. It's stirring because it resonates with so many other struggles - with Gandhi, Ambedkar, and how much the Dalit movement in our society still has to achieve in terms of equality of perception.

Henry's freedom Box by Ellen Levine is a story with positively luminous pictures. you can read more about the real Henry Brown here Strangely, though I didn't particularly want n to read the book, she curled up with it one afternoon. After reading it, her eyes twinkled when she described the underground train and how it wasn't really an underground train, just a train full of conductors and people who helped slaves escape. The illustrations are just incredible - rich, realistic, and lit with a strong, sad inner light.

The incredible book eating boy! by Oliver Jeffers about a boy who develops an apetite for books. He starts eating them accidentally - a pooping cat might have distracted him. Soon he becomes the smartest kid in sight with all those words inside him, and then, one day, he simply falls ill from eating too many books. He has to 'clean' himself up and takes to reading books, which, as the author says, is SO good. But sometimes, he falls off the wagon, so to say, and our lovely copy has bite taken off on the back cover to show you what happens when he regresses!

Coming soon - if our camera works - a picture of Ramesh :)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Forgiving mom and dad

As a parent, there’s just one thing I’m totally certain of: no matter what you do, you’re wrong. You’re either too strict, or too lenient, or too nice or too nasty, too loving or too emotionally reserved.There’s more good news: you’ll only realise the complete error of your ways about 15 years from now, when you look back with hindsight, and see all the things you did that you shouldn’t have. Don’t ask me to prove this — I just know it the way a flower knows when to bloom, or the way we know that every year, come monsoon, Mumbai’s roads will feel like the surface of the moon.

You always start off with the hope of becoming your ideal of the best-ever parent — the best-pal parent, the pushiest parent, the most-free-spirited parent, etc. I aspired to be a combination of the parents I had plus the sort of parents I wished I had. After seven years of trying, I can freely admit to absolute, humbling failure. I had a wonderful role model in my mother, but turns out I’ve all her few faults and none of her virtues.

One of the things I know I’d love to give my child is the sense of freedom that my mum instinctively gave me. The feeling of total acceptance was the best thing about growing up in my family. I don’t remember mum ever laying down the rules or yelling at us (though her mother — my grandmum — more than made up for that).

But growing up with very few rules unfortunately leaves you unequipped for the harsher realities of life and work. So my totally inspired and unique plan was to raise my child with all the love and freedom my mum gave, plus a sense of discipline.

It didn’t quite work out. Turns out that I have my grandmother’s hissy tongue and temper, and her need for discipline, plus my own inherent laziness and indiscipline. And while I refuse to push my kid hard to succeed, I don’t have my mum’s true sense of laissez-faire either. I do however have her high levels of maternal anxiety. As Himesh Reshammiya once said: It’s Complicated.

As parents are we very different from our own? I think we spoil our kids more — we are wealthier, busier, and it’s easier to buy toys than to give kids time. In 15 or 20 years this will come back and bite us on our butts for sure. Unlike us, our parents were also a lot more secure about their methods. Whether they were beating us up or spoiling us silly, they did it with the firm conviction that they knew what was best for us. Or maybe it just seems that way now.Perhaps each generation of parents has to re-learn the skills of passing on the rules of living.

Sometimes parents succeed and raise happy, well-adjusted people, and others, well, don’t. I remember reading Philip Larkin’s (1922-1985) poem This Be the Verse, and going saucer-eyed at the eff word in it. I didn’t get it then, but now, with more perspective on what it is like to be both a parent and a child, I do.

In three very tight stanzas, Larkin spells out his bitterness:
They **** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

The poem becomes kinder towards parents in the second stanza — after all, he writes, they were screwed up by their parents too. The solution? Stop having kids and deepening the ‘coastal shelf’ of misery. Larkin’s advice doesn’t work because nature’s urge to multiply is — thankfully — stronger than good poetry.

Sometimes I think the greatest lesson we can teach our children is how to be kind - so that when they grow up, they can look back at our mistakes with a large measure of forgiveness!

(This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Oct 2, 2011, in my column called 'Small Blunders'.)