Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Nursery Rhymes: Are they really for children?

They are meant for children, it is true, but do you ever wonder how scary some of them sound?  Sample this:

Hush-a-by baby
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby
Cradle and all.

And what happens when the cradle and the baby fall? When we stop singing them and really try to understand the meaning of these rhymes, don't some of them just sound too shocking and too violent to be sung for children? So "Humpty Dumpty had a big fall", "Jack broke his crown", "Peter Pumpkin put his wife in a pumpkin shell", "Down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose". These are just a few illustrations from so-called popular nursery rhymes.

Agatha Christie, the queen of crime, had often used nursery rhymes as clues and even as names in some of her murder mysteries, realizing perhaps, long back, the sinister implications that some of them had. "One, two, buckle my shoe", "Sing a song of sixpence", "Five little Pigs", were all catchy titles and more in Christie books.

And if you don't believe me, read the links below for the sinister historical background and implications of some of the famous nursery rhymes that we sing for our children.



Maybe we should start singing classical music instead to rock our children to sleep.

The voice of a rebel

"No" cries the voice emphatically. The head shakes vigorously. You give up the battle even before you had even started it. The plate of mashed apple that you had prepared with great care looks equally defeated and dejected. And she declares victory, your one year old daughter who has just learnt how to say no. Do we ever wonder how and why our children learn to say "no" so early and so clearly? It is because -
  1. that's what they keep hearing from us when they start their journey into the world of naughtiness exploring the unknown world of forbidden corners
  2. its easier to learn to say "no" than to learn to say "yes" when you start speaking
  3. all children are born rebels till life teaches them otherwise
1 and 2 may be fine but I believe the answer is 3. And that our natural rebellion is subdued and wiped out by years of conditioning, rules and perennial "no" from higher authorities. So much so that we often end up becoming cogs in the wheel, indistinguishable from each other, devoid of rebellion, reminding one of Tennyson’s Crimean War poem “Theirs not to reason why, theirs just to do and die”.

And then there a few rebel souls who keep saying no all their lives. History speaks of rebels from Spartacus to Garibaldi who dared to be different, leading their teams to revolt, war and victory. Not just rebel leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, social leaders, business leaders, a lot of them are often looked upon as rebels. They are the ones for whom George Bernard Shaw would have said "You see things as they are and ask, "Why?" I dream things as they never were and ask, "Why not?". And they are the ones who often ending up changing our age-old perceptions and indeed, the world.

But rebellion doesn't come easy and its never without a price. For all the would be rebel souls, those at crossroads in their lives and those who are rebels-in-waiting, here’s a rebel theme song from me. For, to rebel or not to rebel should not be the key question.

I am not a fly on the wall,
You can’t swat my will, you can’t make me fall.
You can’t make me a cynic try as you may,
I still have a dream and I will find a way,
To be free from being a cog in this wheel,
Have the courage to be different and to feel,
And to think and to reason and question why,
Not just do what I am told till I die.
Stupid rebel you may label me,
And I know you won’t walk with me,
But I’ll stand for things I believe in,
I won’t always play to win.
I won’t sell my soul; your wallet is not big enough,
I can live with my dream, the world is big enough.
They say,
“Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears”.
I would rather take my chance, be myself, even if it leads to bitter tears.
Stupid rebel you may label me,
And I know you won’t walk with me,
But I’ll stand for things I believe in,
I won’t always play to win.

So, next time my child shakes her head with a vehement no, maybe I won't feel like hitting my head against a wall. Maybe I'll listen and I'll say to myself, "relax, this maybe the voice of a rebel". The mashed apple may be the beginning and just a sign. Who knows if she will create history one day? Today's rebel could be tomorrow's leader.

I end with this quote on rebellion that defines a lot of rebels. “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being." Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt

Monday, 29 July 2013

Death by a pothole

No, it wasn't the torrential rains, nor was it the open manhole,
They didn't cause the death of the forgotten and unknown soul,
He died in utter ignominy,
Unable to believe the blasphemy,
That death could come by a pothole.

And who's there to take the blame?
To take action and to shoulder this shame?
Will the faulty roads ever see repair?
Or will common people just have to risk their lives and beware,
Caught in the trap of this nasty and dangerous death game?

Does it look like a crater? Beware, it kills too. Image - google.com

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Death comes again

The rain beats steadily against the window like an uninvited guest.
The room is dark save for a lone light in the centre where a figure is crouched alone.
The knife, with its sharp glint, inches up slowly and stealthily.
The killer strikes the unsuspecting victim. Again and again.
Till the page of the book is turned.

Sounds familiar?
Sounds like you? Not the killer, I mean, the reader…
Let me guess –
  •  Sherlock Holmes, Byomkesh Bakshi, Feluda, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple – been there, read that?
  • Your idea of a perfect day – an unread Agatha Christie where you could guess the murderer?
  • Does everyone else in the family thinks you must have gone nuts as you sit and watch back-to-back Criminal Minds and/or Law and Order episodes to relax at the end of a long day?
  •  You wonder who let CID be launched on Indian Television as a crime show rather than a comedy one?
Well if the answer to majority of the above questions is yes, then, like me, by now you would have finished all the classic murder mysteries and wondered, now what?

Where are the real psychological crime thrillers now?

That book which you can’t put down, which keeps you awake at night, which sends shivers down your spine and which unravels the dark corners of a criminal mind?
The stories that do not just read like fast paced action drama or like gruesome accounts of blood and gore with DNA analysis thrown in for good measure but which challenge you to unravel a puzzle and match wits with a ruthless and highly intelligent killer?
The good old-fashioned "whodunit" which reflects the changes in society and the dangers of the human mind?
Well, the good news for all crime-starved souls like us is that there do exist crime authors in this genre. The bad news is not many of them are based out of India.

My top picks for a few interesting crime authors and the unforgettable characters they have created:

    About the author: She's 90 and still quite a presence! Worked in the Home Office
    Backdrop of the stories: London
    Detective: Adam Dalgilesh; celebral and private, fond of writing poetry
    What's unique: precise prose and sharp insights into human mind
    About the author: A journalist; believes in exercise of the body and mind even at 82!
    Backdrop of the stories: London
    Detective: Inspector Wexford; well-read, witty, solid, calm, women love him
    What's unique: often tackles issues of social injustice
    About the author: Been a seaman and dabbled in theatre. Lives half the year in Africa
    Backdrop of the stories: Sweden
    Detective: Kurt Wallander; loves opera, grumpy but upright, battles diabetes and more
    What's unique: beautifully incorporates changes in Swedish society
    About the author: Been a financial analyst and a rockstar; also played footfall
    Backdrop of the stories: Norway
    Detective: Inspector Harry Hole; a rebel battling the bottle and his own demons
    What's unique: absolutely chilling crime descriptions; often about women in danger
    About the author: Has been writing since his graduation in 1982
    Backdrop of the stories: Scotland
    Detective: Inspector Rebus; lonely, troubled, tries hard to stay sober
    What's unique: music plays an important part as a backdrop in his books
    About the author: Former journalist and lecturer
    Backdrop of the stories: Australia
    Detective: Jack Irish; former lawyer turned investigator and others
    What's unique: rich detailing of atmosphere including Australia's urban and rural       

There are a few of my current favourite picks. There are many more.
The detectives of these books are not paragons of virtue but believable and flawed characters with their own insecurities and fears. They are at times disillusioned, at times rebellious, they battle alcoholism and/or diabetes. The darkness they see around them affects them deeply; their personal lives are often in shambles. But they are characters one can root for and characters which develop further with each novel rather than remaining static with a few stock and trademark characteristics like some detectives of the earlier days.

Well, naysayers will keep saying crime fiction is all about formula. It will never win the Booker Prize or be called literary fiction. Could be true in many cases. But the best of crime fiction do not just aim to thrill, they feature good language and gripping stories apart from brilliant characterization and a chance to understand the frailties of human mind and the changes in society that we never stop to think about.

I will return later this month with a few new Indian names that can be added to this list. And yes, if you are part of the crime-starved community, please also do share your new favourite authors.

And now returning to the crime scene we left. Did you just guess who the murderer is? 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Death by Tourism?

"What's your dream holiday destination?"

Chances are, when asked this question, many people, across the world, would definitely include one city, Venice.

The mysterious city surrounded by water, with its picture postcard beauty, is etched forever in our memories; a city whose history and beauty have been captured so beautifully in countless novels and not so beautifully in some less than forgettable Bollywood movies.

As I stood in St. Peter's square, trying in vain to look for pigeons to feed, I realized, that I was not alone in my dream. Apparently 26 million other tourists share the same dream and turn up every year for a glimpse of this city, choking its streets in a mad rush to soak in its beauty and history while choking out its residents and even its pigeons.

"The best way to discover Venice is to get lost" our guide told us above the din of voices and the sea of human faces of all ages and nationalities outside St. Peters' Basilica on a pleasant and breezy, May morning

So what made Venice so magical? What could be said about the place that was already not said a 100 times over?

-That's the answer we were looking for as we walked down the narrow roads with its 400 year old buildings that kissed the edge of the water gently even as they seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into the very canals that ran along the sides.

-The arches above the narrow canals where the men in the black and white striped shirts (gondola boatmen) expertly guided the gondolas and tirelessly ferried another set of tourists for a taste of the Venice experience. 

-The blatant tourist traps almost at every corner with colorful Venetian masks, t-shirts with "I Love Venice" printed in large letters, street art displaying the images of the Venice in its various shapes and forms, all being sold by eager street hawkers to gullible tourists.

-The quaint trattorias that jotted the narrow roads alongside the expensive restaurants, places where one could sit and gaze at the canal and enjoy a glass of wine over a plate of Seafood Linguini.

-The famous glass-blowing factory at Murano, where the masterglass blower literally seemed to be breathing life in the glass figures of horses and vases that seemed almost too ethereal to be true.

the first glimpse of Venice

an old house, note the lovely flowers

Pisa is not the only place with leaning towers, Venice has them too

Master glass blower at work in Murano

the narrow canals that run along the old houses

The Basilica stands proud

The Venice  we all know and love

The gondolas
the winding stairs in one of the old houses - these were used for protection against enemies in the old days

We walked and walked some more and saw it all. All the magical memories that made Venice what it was.

And at every arch, every corner, every canal we crossed, we found other people with cameras and maps, probably in the same quest to discover the magic of the city.

As evening fell and  we came back, as always, to the water, strains of beautiful and hauntingly lilting music bathed the entire quayside in a magical fairy-tale like atmosphere. There seemed to be nothing modern, nothing 21st century, about the city at that moment. It could be a scene straight from the Merchants of Venice. 

And then I saw her, a woman sitting quietly by one of the arches, conspicuous not just by the lack of a camera and map in her hand but but also by the sad look in her eyes, a look which seemed to ask a mute question to those restless tourists who had no time to stop and listen.

"Is tourism killing Venice?"

And no, I did not click her picture. But the pain in her eyes will haunt me forever. The city that was once a flourishing port and trade center, now has hardly any jobs except in tourism. The city that boasts of thousands of hotels for tourists hardly has affordable and inexpensive houses for residents. The city that lures over 26 million tourists annually has less than 60,000 residents today. The city which was famous for its history and its beauty seems to have fallen prey to its own irresistible charm even as it sinks further into the sea and more people leave its choked shores to find home in other and more modern places.

Can Venice reinvent itself and revive its glory? Can Venice be as beautiful for its residents as it is for its visitors? Yes, I fervently hope so. The magic of Venice should not be left to fade away and pain in the woman's eyes should not be unseen anymore.