Monday, 15 September 2014

And then there were none - top 10 ways I could murder the top 10 lists


Today happens to be Agatha Christie's birthday. Well, the queen of crime in her brilliant book "And then there were none" conjured up a story about an odd mix of people stuck on an island with no room for escape and no place to hide as the killer silently chooses the victims one by one till none remain. The chilling suspense of the book and its arresting title will forever remain a testimony to her unmatched mastery over her art.

So, if you had a way to murder something till there really were none left, what would you choose? I would choose the list of top 10 ways to do, well, almost anything.


See a quick search result from buzzusmo on this topic - a website which claims to give the social buzz on any trending topic. Well, there seem to be top 10 lists for just about anything from losing weight to am sure losing your mind as well. There is even a list of 10 ten ways to stay alive. Just in case we forgot that we are not dead yet.





Quite paradoxically, if you run a search on Google Trends on the same topic, the result you get is quite contrary. It actually says the trend of top ten lists is on the wane over time; though you wouldn't believe it with all the top 10 lists you are forced to see everyday unfailingly, even if you manage to avoid reading them.



Now this article is meant for my fellow struggling writer-in-waiting souls who write content at work apart from writing fiction in their inspired moments. It is not enough that we stare at the clock, sweating beads of frustration, gulping our 5th cup of cold tea as we wait for that perfect phrase to reign sunshine on our content darkened souls?

Wait, the world tells us now. Before we hit publish, we have to do buzz check; how good really is our content? Does it have the potential to become trending content? Don't publish unless it's a top 10 list. Why not 12 or 13, you ask? It has to be 10, you see. That's what sells.

Did I hear right? Now, did they just discover a way to predict the next best-seller blockbuster content? Did Salman Khan and Chetan Bhagat just compile a joint book of top 10 dummy ways to best-seller success?

Or are we just chasing the shadow of trending content before it vanishes in the trail of its own tiny scroll bar, lost till another tweet or link claims the fantasy of the reader? Who decides permanence or success of content? Who can predict the mind of the reader through the lens of the top 10 lists?

You decide. And yes, till we do that, if anyone else talks about 10 lists on the Queen of Crimes' birthday, it is as good a day as any to get started on the top 10 ways to kill that person. Now that would be a good list, I guess. The Queen of Crime has more than 10 lessons for that.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Sometimes memories sneak out of my eyes and roll down my cheeks

At last, a social challenge for the ones who ones who would rather ignore social conventions and curl up with a book. Aha, naming top 10 books you have read when reading books has been a compulsive habit all your life! Child’s play really, you thought. That’s before you actually sat down to name the books and organize the rush of emotions and memories that accompanied the name of each favourite book.

You scan through your bookshelf. You open the first book. Remember?

  • The book you were reading when your sister called you to feel the rush of rain in the balcony on a summer evening choked with the sense of an impending wait, as if the stifled air was waiting to be released from its prison of dampness. You felt the wet wind on your face even as the first raindrop fell on your book and you ran to save your book while the relentless rain drenched happiness on your hair, your eyes, your arms, your senses.


  • The book your best friend gifted you in the library when sharing books was a hallmark of shared friendship. The book which formed your very first definition of love before you even knew what love  meant. The book you discussed and debated over steaming plates of Maggi. Much later, you thought about why your friend gave that particular book to you. Was he trying to say something? You were just friends, weren't you? You discussed every plot in every book you both shared and read but you couldn't ever discuss the reason.


  • The book you read when you were recovering from your first heartbreak; snuggled in bed with a large bar of chocolate, the treacherous tears threatening to create pools of darkness that your self-pity could easily drown in. Then you laughed, incongruously, as the character in the book cracked another insane joke and suddenly the world did not seem so dark anymore. You cracked up, rolling on the bed and despair seemed to melt faster than the melting chocolate in your hand.


  • The book you read when you felt nothing made sense, when the steps to success seemed slippery and steep and emptiness and bitterness gnawed gaping holes in your heart. The world seemed to be your enemy and no one seemed to understand your feelings. Except the author and the character in the book you were reading. Each page seemed to be a story of your struggle. And as you turned the last page, the night disappeared into the dawn and you felt, whole and inspired, all over again.

  • The book you tried to read in snatches as your child slept in her crib, her tiny hands holding on to your fist. She stirred in her sleep and you automatically reached out to soothe her nameless fears; even as you turned the page of your book. The silence of the long afternoon and the questions that the book raised emerged as answers you were looking for and could ask no one. You still found the bookmark in the book; the bookmark you had crumpled over and over again as you thought through decisions that needed to be made.

Memories. Books. Friends. You dust each cover and replace them back on the bookshelf;  the handwritten inscriptions from your friends and loved ones, now timeless imprints on the yellowed pages. Each inscription, an ageless memory of love and care.

It wasn’t just the top 10 books. In a way, for the ones whose lives have been shaped irrevocably by the books they have read, it was also the top 10 memories of their lives. For “sometimes memories sneak out from your eyes and roll down your cheeks”.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Vizag: Lost pages of history

"Long weekend in Vizag?" you hear incredulous whispers. "What will you see there?" "Why not Goa or Kerala?" India's only natural harbour, Vizag or Visakahapatnam, is hardly seen a place of choice to spend a long weekend. It is as if its rich tradition steeped in the culture of centuries from King Ashoka to the Cholas, Chalukyas, Mughals and British are now forgotten pages of old text books resting on dusty book-shelves. As if its wartime history with the Japanese bombing in 1942 and its contribution in the 1971 Banglalesh war could be shrugged as lost secrets from its high cliffs.

Vizag today is seen more as a canny real estate buy for the rich and moneyed looking for another sea-facing getaway. Signs of commercial development are obvious all across the coastline even as the local people go about their business at their old pace; the smells of a small city merging with a rising commercial hub.

Vizag is not well-marketed today. Even on a national holiday, there are very few people from outside town flocking its so-called tourist attractions.  But for the few relentless travellers that make the journey, Vizag holds a  lot more surprises and beauty.

1. The Sound of the Sea against the Soundless Hills:
The waves of the restless sea crash relentlessly  against the narrow sand beach. The hills in the distance stand tall, as if protecting the secrets of the past and guarding their beauty against the rush of uncaring commercial travellers.

A Hollywood style VUDA (Vizag Urban Development authority) sign, a narrow ropeway and a super-slow toy train aptly called "flying" train; can all be forgiven for the majestic view of the Sea and the hills.


2. The Submarine Museum

In the fading evening light, INS Kursura Submarine, stands at the banks of  the RK beach like a rock still capable of protecting the nation, the way it did 30 years back. The real-life statues of the crew once you step inside, tell a vivid tale of lives lived during battle, not an inch of space to spare but hearts filled with courage and dreams.

A fascinating treat for children, this.



3. Thotlakonda
A reminder from the Kalinga days, the vast expanse of 120 acres overlooking the majestic sea today shows the excavated ruins of virahas, stupas, pathways and signs of learning and religion.

The waves make no noise at this distance; there is absolute peace, calm and quiet, the way it would have been, centuries ago.




4. Borra caves

The majestic Borra caves situated about a couple of hours away from Vizag in the breathtaking Araku valley is a journey worth making not just for the destination but also for the journey. As we set out early in the morning on the road to the caves, the rain Gods smile on us, the clouds playing hide and seek with a truant Sun as our tempo traveller meanders its way up picturesque hills dotted with tribal villages.

The caves themselves are among the largest in India. As you descend downwards, your eyes blinking at the darkness, the stalactites and stalagmites forming imaginary shapes in your mind, your eyes turn towards the ceiling - just a sliver of light painting a golden ray amid the layers of darkness. You hear the bats screech, maybe, as you touch the damp walls of the cave. Despite well-positioned lights and staircases, the caves are sure to bring a thrill for the travellers whose imaginations always travel with them.


4. Back to the waters

How can I not speak about the food? From signs of bamboo chicken at every street corner, to ample servings of biriyani at all times of the day, Vizag is also a paradise for food lovers.

Of course, there are a few Continental and Chinese restaurants which serve global cuisine to those inclined. And for those looking for authentic local cuisine, Vizag promises a treat for the tastebuds if one is willing to overook the service time which are obviously not meant for those always "on-the-go".


At the end of the long weekend, as we let the restless waves wash over our tired feet, the wind blowing across our faces; the footsteps on the sand receding into the darkening swirl of the waters, Vizag seems to be finally telling us its secret; a secret that we all knew, but rarely stopped to hear. A secret whispered by the waves, carried by the wind, echoed by the mountains, buried deep in the caves and in the layers of the stupas. To just let life be, in all its pain and beauty. To let history remain untouched even as future claimed the present. To stop the hurry and the worry, till we could feel the salt in our eyes and the wind swaying our hearts.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

When the iceberg cracks

The show over,
He bowed,
The audience clapped, still in splits
Over his jokes and wisecracks,
Holding their aching sides,
His warmth,
Melting their iceberg of sorrow.

The show over,
He stood, 
Laughter billed by the hour,
Darkness accumulated over years,
Hiding his aching pain,
His smile,
Cracking his iceberg of lost hopes.

They say that "the loneliest people are the kindest. The saddest people smile the brightest. All because they do not wish to see anyone else suffer the way they do."

On a day when Robin Williams, a man who made millions smile, lost the battle to his own demon of depression, the question that we all might ask is do we know the ones who make us smile and laugh the most are the ones who might be suffering the most?

While we crib our hearts to them and they listen and they give as they always have, do they ever share what is gradually tearing them apart? Can we see the darkness in that kind smile? Can we hold their hand and hope they will find the strength to cry? And in crying and in sharing, they will find the strength again to live and smile not just for others but also for themselves?

Can we save the Robin Williams we all see around us- the ones that seek to inspire always spreading kindness and happiness but never sharing their own darkness? Can we stop the iceberg from cracking?


Monday, 21 July 2014

Which story will you tell your daughter tonight?

"Tell me a story, Mummy" she will say at bedtime, her eyes still wide open, her tiny fingers holding on to your hand, the night lamp still darting shadows on the childish paintings that adorn her bedroom walls. Paintings of rainbows, of butterflies, of a Sun that shines over a small house, stick figures of a family with smiling, happy faces.

Yes, a story. You want to tell her stories of bravery, of dreams, of reaching for the impossible and finding her true self. All that you want her to achieve. You want to tell her a story about the rainbow and the sunlight, about the Sun that shines brightly as she hopskotches her way onto her shiny dreams.

But then there is another story you need to tell her. A story about darkness and a cloud called bad touch, that rains only in the dark shadows where evil awaits wearing masks that she may not recognize - a relative, a helper, a cleaner, a neighbour. Someone she trusts. Someone she has seen everyday. Yet someone who could blacken the rainbow forever. Who could turn her brightly colored paintings into splashes of black and red in an instant.

It is a story that is probably being shared by millions of parents to their children in homes across India tonight even as the latest Bangalore rape reminds us again of the monsters that lurk beneath the faces we see everyday and the utter fear and the utter helplessness that we feel as parents.

Which story will you tell her? How can she be brave if you ask her to be scared?  How can we say we are free if we are worried sick every moment our children are away from us in schools, in daycares, in the very places that are supposed to nurture them and guide them?

How can we answer their innocent questions?

"Is touching on the shoulder ok, Mama?" "Or on the leg?"

"Are we safe outside school?"

"Why are bad people allowed in the school?"

One incident. Many questions. Are we brave enough to answer them for our children? Will we again forget till the next incident comes back to haunt us? How can we tell them the right stories, make them continue to paint in the bright colours that is their right as children?

I am a mother. I have a daughter. And I want to hold her hand and show her the stars, help her paint her dreams in myriad hues of imagination. I do not want her to cower in fear, afraid of lurking shadows at every corner. I am a mother. I want my daughter to be safe. Is that too much to ask for?

So yes, I will tell her a story tonight. A story of rainbows and the Sun that shines over all the dark clouds. Tonight and every single night till no monsters can even lurk near her dreams.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Bookworm Gardens and Tall Tales

Far away from the addictive laddoos of Chotta Bheem, far away from the flashing screens of the iPad, far away from the digital world that is increasingly locking our children and possibly their imaginations too, there lies another magical world that sets them free, a world of books. At a time when they and their imaginations should both be running free and wild in the meadows of childhood, scraping their knees, falling down, but experiencing the sheer joy of running without fear; a lot of todays' children are unfortunately ignoring the magical world that can shape their minds, increase their vocabulary, widen their horizons and indeed, paint a whole new world.

A world that a lot of us parents wish our children to enter into as we keep taking them to bookshops and buying the latest stories that seem to be firing their imagination from Wimpy Kids' wimpy antics to Geronimo Sliton's scaredy mouse habits. But it is a world that is increasingly becoming difficult for our children to comprehend and understand given the explosion of other media that is blinding them with their bright colors and jazzy images as they stand transfixed, lost, as if admiring candies in a candy store but unable to make up their minds.

Yes, we read them bed-time tales, yes there are storytelling sessions nowadays which encourage creativity and reading habits in children. But they all seem to be fighting a losing battle as bookstore sales drop and library memberships dwindle and children wrinkle their noses at classics and fairy tales as if they were poisons similar to another forced dose of carrots or banana.

And then I read about this. Bookworm Gardens. 


















Located in Wisconsin, a DisneyWorld to a booklover, the park, which has free entrance for all, is a place where children and their imaginations can roam free, in a world of classic stories and much loved tales brought to life creatively and humorously. A packed lunch and a day to roam free with stories and imaginations. That is what the park offers.

We may not have such a luxury here. But we do have farms and parks, gardens and myriad lost, old stories that lurk in the everyday mundane. Can we not use them to create such a beautiful world for our children through storytelling; can we not picturize for them a world full of the greatest riches and boundless pleasures, a world locked between the covers of the old pages of a book, a world which only they have the magic key to open, when they finally flip the covers open?

A confirmed bookworm I am for sure, my world shaped by the books I have read since childhood and the new ones that I hope to read everyday. But after all, John Lenon did say, "You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one."

If more and more parents, try painting this picture, our children too will rediscover the magic of books all over again. Till then we may as well cower in fear as the screechy sirens of the Chotta Bheem theme song threatens to invade sanity.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Grace

He saw a new face,
Sharing, teaching,
A scarf covering
One side of her face,
Her wisps of curly hair,
Her dark black eyes,
Mere glimpses.  She
Was beauty, she was grace.

Till one day, thunder
Roared, the wind howled,
Sheets of incessant rain.
Her scarf blew away,
No match for the gale. And
She turned, he flinched,
Her grace unmasked. He
Tried not to look away.

His face burnt with shame.
Horror. Anger. The scars
From a distant past. Did they
Make her lesser than whole?
But she smiled, she laughed, 
As the rain caressed her face,
Washing away the pain, baring
Her real grace, her unbeaten soul.