Saturday, December 25, 2010

Year of the Book #42 LEWIS CARROLL

imageSometimes, a writer or a poet looms so large on the literary landscape, that to attempt to say something meaningful about him/her in anything less than a full blown thesis would be foolishness. (Wikipedia not withstanding.)

Lewis Carroll is one of them. Or if we are to go by his real name - Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. So, today, I focus on some of his non-literary achievements

Mathematician & Logician  – Working in geometry, algebra, logic (including symbolic logic) and what we today call psephology, Lewis Carroll wrote at least a dozen books on the subjects, under his real name

Inventor – Among Carroll’s inventions is the nyctograph, a device by which you can write in the dark, without having to switch the light on. This is my favourite because I’ve lost count of all the poems and the ideas that I thought I had neatly stored away in my about-to-fall-asleep brain and couldn’t remember a word of the next morning!

Photographer – His mastery of this art also brought him some notoriety. The many photographs of nude or semi-nude little girls led to many researchers speculating that Carroll was a paedophile


End I must with Lewis Carroll the Poet. In fact, his first piece to be published under the name of “Lewis Carroll” was a poem titled Solitude!

Many like Jabberwocky, The Walrus and the Carpenter, You are old, Father William are part of the Alice books, but many like Phantasmagoria and this whimsical poem are not…


A Sea Dirge by Lewis Carroll

There are certain things--as, a spider, a ghost,
The income-tax, gout, an umbrella for three--
That I hate, but the thing that I hate the most
Is a thing they call the Sea.

Pour some salt water over the floor--
Ugly I'm sure you'll allow it to be:
Suppose it extended a mile or more,
That's very like the Sea.

Beat a dog till it howls outright--
Cruel, but all very well for a spree:
Suppose that he did so day and night,
That would be like the Sea.

I had a vision of nursery-maids;
Tens of thousands passed by me--
All leading children with wooden spades,
And this was by the Sea.

Who invented those spades of wood?
Who was it cut them out of the tree?
None, I think, but an idiot could--
Or one that loved the Sea.

It is pleasant and dreamy, no doubt, to float
With "thoughts as boundless, and souls as free":
But, suppose you are very unwell in the boat,
How do you like the Sea?

There is an insect that people avoid
(Whence is derived the verb "to flee").
Where have you been by it most annoyed?
In lodgings by the Sea.

If you like your coffee with sand for dregs,
A decided hint of salt in your tea,
And a fishy taste in the very eggs--
By all means choose the Sea.

And if, with these dainties to drink and eat,
You prefer not a vestige of grass or tree,
And a chronic state of wet in your feet,
Then--I recommend the Sea.

For I have friends who dwell by the coast--
Pleasant friends they are to me!
It is when I am with them I wonder most
That anyone likes the Sea.

They take me a walk: though tired and stiff,
To climb the heights I madly agree;
And, after a tumble or so from the cliff,
They kindly suggest the Sea.

I try the rocks, and I think it cool
That they laugh with such an excess of glee,
As I heavily slip into every pool
That skirts the cold cold Sea.

Happy Birthday, Atlaji!

I wrote this as my very first weekly column in the Mid_Day newspaper

Move over Bacchan, the new Abby is here.
When Mr. Vajpayee became PM the first time around in 1996, I remember listening to a scoop of sorts pulled off by Radio Mid-Day called “The PM on FM”. The Prime Minster of India talking about his favourite Hindi film songs. And as I listened, I was smitten. A man who could be moved by the poignant beauty of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Lagta nahin hai dil mera, who had imagination to make Mere pairon mein ghungroo bandha de, toh phir meri chaal dekh le his campaign promise deserved my undying devotion. I’ve remained a bug-eyed fan ever since. But yesterday, as I read  his name in a newspaper, it hit me! Yes, girls, it’s finally happened. There’s a new Abby Baby on the block and he’s the PM.
Atal Behari. Apart from his initials, other qualifications to be the next Dhak-Dhak of India? Several. Tall(ish), dark(ish),  handsome(ish), a full, distinguished head of sexy, silvery hair, (no hair weaves, no dyes). Not Young (a mature seventy-one) but Angry (he asked Lata Mangeshkar about Aye mere watan ke logon -  “Aankh mein pani hum kyon bharen? Ankh mein angare hona chahiye”). There’s more. Intelligent, charismatic, telegenic. Makes great speeches, writes even better poetry, has the cutest twinkle in his eye, and is a spiffy dresser in the best dhoti-kurta tradition. And the icing on the cake? He’s single. (And willing to mingle, if we go the long list of  BJP allies including an impressive list of  power babes- Sushma, Uma, Jaya, Mamata.).  So….well, what can I say? Move over Amit, Atal is here (Atalji to you hoi-polloi, Atal to me).
Atal’s most endearing quality is that he comes across as human. Versus Sphinx (Sonia), Yeti (Kesri), Miss Piggy (Narsimha Rao), Winnie the Pooh (Gujral) and Rip Wan Winkle (Deve Gowda). He’s a regular guy like you and me. He likes the good life, (kheer and malpua and Chinese food), appreciates a good flick and is partial to a good tune. But most importantly, he has a sense of humour. I willing to trust anyone who has a sense of humour, and by that I don’t mean the kind when you crack up after you’ve just pulled the political rug from under your opponent’s feet and watched him break at least three ribs. True, the political company he keeps sucks. Jayalaitha, Murli Manohar Joshi, Subramaniam Swamy, Sanjay  Singh, dear ol’ Georgie-Porgie.  But look at what’s in the other witches’ cauldrons. Mulayam Singh, R. K. Dhawan. Laloo. Deve Gowda. Karunadhi. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble and how!

Drool apart, Vajpayee’s the most decent PM material we’ve had in a long time. There’s not too much the average Indian wants out of that august office today. Just someone who we can trust not to demolish this country any further, who has highest coefficient of least-corrupt-most-competent, and has a fairish chance of sticking around for five years. I think Attu shows healthy signs of being capable of all this. We finally have a PM who doesn’t go to sleep while the desh goes down the tube, (Nero just fiddled and those Dilip Kumarish pauses in between sentences are scary sometimes), doesn’t look like a leftover from Dino the Dinosaurs’ dinner and has a little more spine than your average jelly fish. And is cute to boot.
Let me sum it up. What was Atal’s rallying song to his party workers? “Jo wada kiya tha, nibhana padega” My response? “Jab ishq ka sauda kiya, phir kya ghabarana  humko aana padega.” So let’s give him a chance. After all,  if we can let Amitabh act after Mrityudaata, Atal deserves a second bash at PM-giri. Long Live Abby Baby.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Year of the Book #41 DYLAN THOMAS

If you want to fall in love with words, not for what they mean but for how they sound, as if they were music, read Dylan Thomas (1914-1953).

Rather, hear him.

The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes, and before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolised, or meant was of very secondary importance -- what mattered was the very sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and quite incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world. And those words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milk carts, the clapping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a window pane, might be to someone deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing.”


Only someone to whom words meant this could have written Under Milk Wood, interestingly enough, not a poem but a radio play in which the main character’s name is “Llareggub”. Which while it may sound very Welsh is actually “Bugger All” spelt backwards

Dylan Thomas’ Voice

Richard Burton’s Voice

“Musical lyricism” is a phrase often used to describe Dylan Thomas’ style of writing and so, little wonder that his public readings of UnderMilkwood and  poems like Don’t Go Gently Into the Night that brought him – especially in America - as much adulation as the writing itself.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Year of the Book #41 CARL SANDBURG

My Pocket Book of Modern Verse has just 2 poems of Carl Sandburg. One called “Lost”, is part of “Chicago Poems”, the collection of poetry published in 1916 that first got Sandburg recognition.

Desolate and alone

All night long on the lake

Where fog trails and mist creeps,

The whistle of a boat

Calls and cries unendingly,

Like some lost child

In tears and trouble

Hunting the harbor's breast

And the harbor's eyes.

The second poem you will be hard put to find in almost any Carl Sandburg collection, but it made that particular page in my Pocket Book one of the most thumbed. And it is the one that I will always remember Carl Sanburg by.

It is simply called “They Have Yarns.” (see below)

Carl Sandburg wrote all kinds of stuff, apart from poems. He wrote a collection of children’s stories called The Rootabaga stories, which he described as ". . . attempts to catch fantasy, accents, pulses, eye flashes, inconceivably rapid and perfect gestures, sudden pantomimic moments, drawls and drolleries, gazings and musings--authoritative poetic instants--knowing that if the whir of them were caught quickly and simply enough in words, the result would be a child lore interesting to child and grown-up."

His biography of Abraham Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln : The War Years) won him one of his 3 Pulitzer Prizes, the other two for his poetry. And if Wikipedia is to be believed, apparently Steven Speilberg said that the face of E.T. was a combination of Carl Sandburg,  Albert Einstein & Ernest Hemingway!


    They have yarns

    Of a skyscraper so  tall they had to put hinges on the  two top stories so to let the moon  go by,

    Of one corn crop  in Missouri when the roots went so  deep and drew off so much water

    The Mississippi riverbed  that year was dry.

    Of pancakes so thin  they had only one side,

    Of "a fog so  thick we shingl'ed the barn and six  feet out on thefog,“

    Of Pecos Pete straddling  a cyclone in Texas and riding it  to the west coast where "it rained  out under him,“

    Of the man who  drove a swarm of bees across the  Rocky Mountains and the Desert "and  didn't lose a bee.“

    Of a mountain railroad  curve where the engineer in his cab  can touch the caboose and spit in  the conductor's eye,

    Of the boy who  climbed a cornstalk growing so fast he  would have starved to death if they  hadn't shot biscuits up to him,“

    Of the old man's  whiskers: "When the wind was with  him his whiskers arrived a day before  he did,“

    Of the hen laying  a square egg and cackling, "Ouch!  " and of hens laying eggs with  the dates printed on them,

    Of the ship captain's  shadow: it froze to the deck one  cold winter night,

    Of mutineers on that  same ship put to chipping rust with  rubber hammers,

    Of the sheep-counter  who was fast and accurate: "I just  count their feet and divide by four,“

    Of the man so  tall he must climb a ladder to shave  himself,

    Of the runt so  teeny-weeny it takes two men and a  boy to see him,

    Of mosquitoes: one  can kill a dog, two of them a  man,

    Of a cyclone that  sucked cookstoves out of the kitchen,  up the chimney flue, and on to the  next town,

    Of the same cyclone  picking up wagon-tracks in Nebraska and  dropping them over in the Dakotas,

    Of the hook-and-eye  snake unlocking itself into forty pieces,  each piece two inches long, then in  nine seconds flat snapping
    itself together again,

    Of the watch swallowed  by the cow: when they butchered her  a year later the watch was running  and had the correct time,

    Of horned snakes,  hoop snakes that roll themselves where  they want to go, and rattlesnakes carrying  bells instead of
    rattles on their tails,

    Of the herd of  cattle in California getting lost in a  giant redwood tree that had been hollowed  out,

    Of the man who  killed a snake by putting its tail  in its mouth so it swallowed itself,

    Of railroad trains  whizzing along so fast they reached the  station before the whistle,

    Of pigs so thin  the farmer had to tic knots in their  tails to keep them from crawling through  the cracks in their pens,

    Of Paul Bunyan's big  blue ox, Babe, measuring between the eyes  forty-two ax-handles and a plug of Star  tobacco exactly,

    Of John Henry's hammer  and the curve of its swing and his  singing of it as " a rainbow  round my shoulder."
    They have yarns . . .

made me go back again

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Year of the Book #40 A A Milne

“If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Eeyore

“Children’s Literature”, is according to me, a very tricky categorization because more often than not, much of what is considered as fitting into this category is read as much by adults as it is by children. The examples are many – Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame and more recently J K Rowling.

And certainly, much of Alan Alexander Milne’s writing that he was most famous for would be also be thus labelled, especially the Winne the Pooh books. (It didn’t help things when Milne’s widow sold the rights to the Pooh characters to Disney and poor Winnie became the cutesy Pooh-Bear, a fate he shared with the rest of his friends.)

But as Milne himself apparently said, “A children's book' must be written, not for children, but for the author himself.” So, Winnie the Pooh is as much a book for children as it is for adults and I think we read these books not only to escape to our own childhoods but also to recapture and refresh things which we once connected to but lost touch in the tiresome business of becoming “grown-ups”


“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”


What I didn’t know about A.A Milne

That he was also an accomplished playwright , writing over 25 plays and adapting The Wind in the Willows for stage as The Toad in the Hall

That his father owned a school where H.G.Wells was a teacher

That he was Punch’s assistant editor

When I was one, I had just begun.

When I was two, I was nearly new.

When I was three, I was hardly me.

When I was four, I was not much more.

When I was five, I was just alive.

But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever

Monday, December 20, 2010

Year of the Book # 39 GERALD DURRELL


I’m constantly amazed at the clarity and the indelibility of childhood impressions. At least that is how it is for me. It is almost as if there is a movie theatre in my head and at the press of a switch, the memory of choice plays as vivid and unspoilt as if it happened yesterday.

(Fortunately for me, most of my childhood was a wonderfully happy one.)

And perhaps one of the most delightful memories is of devouring Gerald Durrell’s books during summer holidays. Once again, he was a gift from my English Literature class in school – and so we studied My Family and Other Animals with as much diligence as Julius Ceaser. But, as heretical as it may be to say it, I left Shakespeare behind in the classroom while I carried my beloved Durrell out and he stays with me to this very day.

Most people would describe Gerald Durrell as one of the world’s most well-known and pioneering naturalists and conservationists. Indeed, he sounded the wake up call about the environment long before it was both fashionable and politically correct to talk “conservation”.

But for me, he will always be the man who wrote

“ Champagne corks popped and the pale, chrysanthemum-coloured liquid, whispering gleefully with bubbles, hissed into the glasses; heavy red wine glupped into the goblets, thick and crimsom as the blood of some mythical monster, and a swirling wreath of pink bubbles formed on the surface; the frosty white wine tiptoed into the glasses, shriulling, gleaming, now like diamonds, now like topaz; the ouzo lay transparent and innocent as the edge of a mountain pool until the water splashed in and the whole glass curdled like a conjuring trick, coiling and blurring into a summer cloud of moonstone white…”The Garden of the Gods 


Know Your Onions

Today, onions are going for 60-70 rupees/kg. I wrote this piece 12 years ago as my weekly column in the Mi-Day, when rains destroyed much of the onion crops. Looks history is a circle

Did you know that the onion belongs to the same family as the lily? Sort of distant cousins, I guess. Impossible, you think, that this aristocratic fragrant flower could be related to that rustic, rumbustious bulb. But the family resemblance is there, an unmistakable tendency to make one’s presence smelt.
With unseasonal rains having rotted away most of Maharashtra’s onion crop this year, the time has come, as the good Walrus would say, to pay a tribute to this smelly but illustrious member of the Genus Lilaceae which till now has been treated like so much kanda-batata
First, my favourite Son-of-the-Soil story. To show that while the flesh may have be born-‘n-brought up on pizza, the spirit is still pure pyaza. Many years ago, as I rode on a DTC bus, my face pressed to the window to get lungfuls of the balmy Delhi-ka-Dhool-aur-Dhooan-laden air, it started raining. Heavily. And all of us who’d shoved and pushed to sit by the windows, now tried to close them. But the windows, as all windows on public transport are wont to do, stayed firmly open. As I struggled with mine, a thin, black arm shot out from behind me, gave the window a short, sharp tug and slammed it shut. I whipped around to see a scrawny little R. K. Laxman version of “Jai Kissan” grinning happily at me. As I thanked him, he proudly told me that it was his daily diet of roti, raw onion and green chilies that made for such takat. Wah, I thought. The indomitable spirit of India. Kept alive by raw onion. And I believed him ‘‘cos I’d seen it in the movies. Hot noon-day sun glints off honest pasina on hero’s brow as he toils on Mere Desh ki Dharti. In sashays heroine, designer-dupatta-wrapped lunch-ki-potli nestled in curve of hip. Hero flashes hungry glance. (At lunch, silly.) Unwraps dupatta, smashes onion with pyaz-powered fist and proceeds to share roti and pyaz-bhari-baaten with soon-to-be-woti.
Fade out.

Every time a thing’s in danger of becoming extinct, expensive and exotic (as the onion soon may be), little known facts about it start to emerge. Which normally turns out that in 563 B. C., in the temple of Horn-i-Billi, the ancient Goat-God of Virility, the soon-to-be-out-of-circulation thing was used as an aphrodisiac. While they’ve yet to discover the onion’s aphrodisiacal qualities, did you know that the onion can cure acne, anemia, bee stings, bronchitis, colic, cough, influenza, insomnia, scorpion bites and warts? It’s also a remedy for stunted growth, (guess Napoleon’s and Mulayam’s mummies didn’t know that) and massaging raw onion paste can cure bleeding gums but there’s no mention of what it can do for halitosis. That’s the worrying part about theses kanda-cures. The raw onion bit. I mean, you may be able to sleep well at night, but it’ll probably be alone.
Did you know that a good way to bunk (school, office, date-with-Dracula) is to put a cut onion under your arm? Will make your body ape a fever. And even if it doesn’t, the ensuing stink will make your underarm the most lethal anti-personnel weapon to date. Can repel humans within a radius of 5 kms. Did you know that the onion was depicted in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs as far back as 3200 B. C.? Nothing like a reminder of good ol’ onion breath to keep those aajoo-bajoo ghosts from encroaching on your necropolis. Given the severe space crunch in these tombs. Old Tut’s for example, (Tutenkhaman to you) could barely accommodate 4 ivory-‘n-gold chariots, a jewel-encrusted throne, furniture, footwear and enough roti, kapda and back issues of the National Geographic to last the time it takes to journey from one birth to another. (A mite more than your average Transatlantic flight, nahi?)
And finally, did you know that there are entire cuisines cooked without a single onion? Like Jain pav-bhaji, Jain chow-mein, Jain pizza and even Jain no pyaza. And that a “voting slip” for a music channel’s Viewers’ Choice Award had allocated “election symbols” for each nominated “candidate”. And A. R. Rahman’s symbol was an onion. Does anyone know why?

Happiness - A Poem

The number of times we met
Doesn’t even get past the fingers of one hand
But the happiness inside me
Lingers like a toothache
I fill in between blanks with it
And when that fades
I take out the memory of it
Like a old faded photograph
And that makes me ache all over again
With happiness

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The taste of Nothing - A Poem

the day lingers
in my mouth
as i lick the night

nothing happened
to make it so delcious

the day lingers
in my nostrils
as i sip a dream

and wonder
how nothing can taste
so sweet

Stitches - A Poem

I thought I was done.
I thought I had stitched up
The mocking, yawning mouth of the question
“Will you, do you, when will you…”
With long, tight, hard irrevocable stitches
That said
I thought I was ready
To take the train
Out of you
When suddenly,
I tripped
On something
That burst the stitches open
And spilled me back into that yaw….

Green Tea - a poem

He, she
Between them
A dark green sea
A bitter brew
Of what grew
Out of seeds of words
That were never meant to be silent

Year of the Book #38 ROBERT FROST

 imageRobert Frost (1874-1963) came into my life when I was just 15. I was introduced to him by a woman who I will never forget and whom I hero-worshipped – Sister David, our English Literature teacher in school. Through her I met and fell in love with so many writers and poets but somehow, Frost seemed to make a special place in my heart.

Students of literature are taught 2 sides of the coin. The first is to see a work in the context of the writer’s life and times. The second is to see it standing alone, a face-to-face encounter between the reader and the writer.

Robert Frost won 4 Pulitzer prizes for Poetry and if America had the concept of Poet Laureate, he would have probably been bestowed that honour as many times. But even if you didn’t know any of that – and I certainly didn’t – his poems shine right through straight into your heart.

Perhaps many Indians know (or don’t!) Frost because these lines that were Jawaharlal Nehru’s favourite

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep…”

But my favourites are

“The way a crow shook down on me

The dust of snow from a hemlock tree

Has given my heart a change of mood

And saved some part of a day I rued.”  (Dust of Snow)


It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

I'd like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:

I don't know where it's likely to go better.

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree…” (Birches)