Thursday, March 08, 2018

We Are Not In Pakistan by Shawna Singh Baldwin

Slice of life, stark, nuanced stories, centered around the themes of immigrants, terrorism, and racism, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s collection of short stories makes one confront the very real fears of our times. Her remarkable insight into the working of the minds of her characters that are from various parts of the world – Ukrainian, Irish, Mexican, Pakistani -- trying to dig in roots in their new soil and at the same time threatened by an alien world around them. Like a bill stand with a paper spear that goes through each bill, each of these stories is speared through with fear and unease that leaves one worried and sad for the loneliness and the marginalization that humans suffer and the realization that with all our awareness too we are only growing towards the darkness.

My favourite stories from this collection are, Only a Button, Fletcher and The Distance Between Us.

The disturbing quiet of a housewife, the oh, no, oh no that keeps resonating in her head even as she complies with the demands of her marriage in Only a Button will always stay with the reader. When her mother-in-law calls her husband and tells him to ask her to look for a button she has lost in their apartment during her visit, the thoughts that go on in the girl’s mind, her helpless and the underlying truth of the marriage that - This man she loves is the one person she can’t tell how she feels – is the truth for many who, like her, continue to live in denial of it.

Victor placed a call to Kyiv. “Olena says she cannot find it.”

He should have said, Olena cannot find it. That might have kept Matushka quiet. He could have said, We have been trying to find your button ever since you called, and we have looked everywhere, but we cannot find it. He could have said, as one says to a child, Don’t worry, it’s only a button. We’ll find another just like it.

Fletcher, a wise and perceptive Lhasa Apso as the narrator, brings to surface the dilemmas of the human mind and the games people play to control others. Masterfully, the author studs the narrative with wit and wry humour that balances off the underlying gloom.

The Distance Between Us is a sensitive portrayal of a Sikh professor living in the United States meeting his 21-year-old daughter for the first time. On the one hand, he is the object of racial hate and on the other, he is filled with affection for a daughter he did not know existed.

The title of the book comes from a story by the same name in which sixteen-year-old Kathleen living in the United States with her Pakistani grandmother keeps reminding her that We Are Not in Pakistan in response to her grandmother’s Pakistani ways and views.

*I first read this book when it came out in 2009 in India (published 2007) and I read this again now because this is my depth year which means I go back to books that I enjoyed, read more classics that fell through the gaps while trying to hold too much, and read more books by the same authors to gain insight into their craft.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

In Amritsar, reminder in a public park

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Feb 17 2018, 23:10 IST

Returning to Amritsar after 12 years and having done all the touristy things in the previous visit, we had planned to spend our two days there, soaking solely in the peace of the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple. However, walking out from the temple early one morning, when we came upon the Jallianwala Bagh, we stepped in. It does not hit you immediately in the manner of all shock - the fair-like scene that unfolds at the other end of the iconic, two-abreast entrance.

Outside, a new corridor has been built around the Golden Temple, the shanty souvenir shops cleared away and the pathways laid in marble and cobblestone - the meandering smooth stretches of ivory aesthetically set off by the rough grey-stone squares. A two-minute walk from the temple is this historic site, easy to miss, pushed back and buttressed by buildings as it is in a long line of shops and houses.

The stark white marble sculpture that has been installed just outside the gates of the bagh, in the market square, seems quite incongruent with the surrounding buildings, many of these also new but painted in subdued shades of sandstone and lime. It is also quite disparate from the gracefully antiquating brick walls of the bagh it represents. This sculpture is in the form of a flame with human heads in relief, and if it weren't for the respect one carried in their heart, it would not elicit much deference. The names of the people who died in the massacre are inscribed on the plinth.

At the gate, there were a couple of policemen, a few sellers of frivolous knick-knacks and nothing primes the visitor that they are on the threshold of viewing, perchance experiencing an intense slice of Indian history.

A scattered tableau

When we had visited at noon the last time, the bagh was full of Amritsar-in-a-day tourists clicking pictures of the martyrs' flame, the bullet marks on the walls around that rise several stories and have windows - most closed in, some offering fleeting vistas of living - people combing hair, pressure cookers whistling. They had peered into the Martyrs' Well where hundreds had jumped in to escape the bullets and died, trying to bring up the horror for themselves. Some threw in coins as an offering.

At this hour, it was the morning walkers chatting, greeting each other. It was like any other park in any other town. The martyrs' flame on its black granite flickered in the morning breeze as people walk past it without a glimpse or a bow of head. The sandstone flame-shaped memorial that has so evocatively stared at us from our earliest history textbooks stood deserted at the far end, the waterbody around it waterless. Scattered topiaries of gun-shooting soldiers evoked no sense of the actual scene. A yoga class was on in the largest patch of the dewy-lawn, people stretched out on white sheets and the lady instructor's voice rising above the general chatter.

In another corner, an older man in a white beard and track pants was showing off his yoga flexibility to three fidgety bystanders. The small museum, which among other memorabilia also has Udham Singh's ashes and Rabindranath Tagore's letter renouncing his knighthood, was closed at the hour.

Us before them

One hundred years ago, we were wronged. People's chest swelled with patriotic pride when a member of parliament recently demanded for the 'British Prime Minister on the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to come to that site, bend his or her knees, and beg forgiveness for all sins committed in the past.' We, who do not know how to honour our own, cannot preserve the solemnity of the site of a horrific massacre which remains a definitive symbol of our freedom struggle - we ask for retribution?

On April 13, 1919, on the day of the Punjabi festival of Baisakhi, a crowd that had gathered in this public park in Amritsar, was fired upon by the British Indian Army under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, killing and wounding hundreds of innocent, unarmed, peaceful protestors. A sign at the memorial puts the number of dead at 2,000.

A memorial exists as a reminder, as a symbol for the present generations to form connections with their past. The Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the horrific massacre of innocent, unarmed people that turned the course of the Indian freedom movement, fails to evoke any sense of history, any feeling of deference.

Where should a visitor pause and pay homage in the big picnic that they seem to be in the midst of? How should they perceive the fragmented information to be in a frame of mind where they may experience the poignancy if they want to? Perhaps a plaque-led heritage walk can bring the scattered mise-en-scène together. The sanctity of the place needs to be restored first in its upkeep, and then in behaviours that need to be enforced on visitors in order to elevate a culture of respect and remembrance.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Tears are still caught in my throat; I’ve just finished reading this intensely riveting novel, brilliantly told.  The narrative never falters, the interest never slackens as the reader is drawn into a sweeping tale of the early writing life and first marriage of Hemmingway, in the voice of his first wife – Hadley Richardson.

Because of the interest in the private life and craft of the great writer, all details were savoured – from his dressing and hairstyles to his disciplined writing schedule – he was dedicated to a fault – the daily grind and the agony, the delight in having written ‘something!’; his vulnerability in relationships and lack of trust that came from his early childhood and family situation as also from witnessing the horrors of WWI in which he was wounded with shrapnel lodged in his legs, and in covering the Greco-Turkish War (1920-1922) as a correspondent – of a man who did not seem to trust his allies and dropped his early mentors and closest friends. The sureness and confidence he had in his writing, he did not in his relationships.

I felt a keen stab of loss when all his early, painstakingly-written manuscripts were lost by none other than the beloved wife. His consequent coming to terms with it at once and not holding her responsible, was heroic. On her part, I did not think Hadley showed enough remorse and not for long. But when he begins to write afresh and the writing is finer and sharper, I felt perhaps all writers should lose their initial drafts to get rid of the scum and reveal only that which is deep and true and beautiful.

Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris. Part of it was the war. The world had ended once already and could again at any moment. The war had come and changed us…. (that was) Why we couldn’t stop drinking or talking or kissing the wrong people no matter what it ruined…The crisp and beautiful prologue prepares one for a peek into the life of the ‘lost generation’ – the absolute empty, meaningless lives of the rich, famous and the super creative in Paris during the early 1920s after the WW1, when allegiances forever shifting, and no relationship was sacrosanct. ‘Paris was Ernest’s smorgasbord.’

I felt every feeling that Hadley did in love and when it was slipping away till it had, irrevocably. But her character, very believable, came across in hindsight, as miss goody two shoes – she’s too nice and warm and beautiful to be real flesh and blood. When Hemmingway leaves her for Pauline, they have their tiffs and outbursts but when the friends ask her to fight back, she only says: ‘People belong to each other only as long as they both believe. He’s stopped believing.’

Deep down she knew that it was over and had weighed her chances well: What could I do or say? He might ultimately fall out of love with Pauline and come fully back to me – that was still possible – but nothing was in my control. If I gave him an ultimatum and said she couldn’t stay, I would lose him. If I got hysterical and made public scenes, it would just give him an excuse to leave me.

Her helplessness and hopelessness were heart-breaking. But Hemmingway was a victim too – a victim of his mind, a flawed human. ‘You make your life with someone and you love that person and you think it’s enough. But it is never enough, is it?’ It was absurd and very infuriating that he and Pauline were living as a couple with Hadley and he expected Hadley to accept it because he loved her too. He wanted both. ‘The arrangement could be deadly, but couldn’t marriage also be, if it banked the coals in you? You could grow very quiet in a marriage. A new girl got you talking and telling her made everything fresh again. She called you out of your head and stopped the feeling that the best part of you was being shaved away, inch by inch. You owed her for that. No matter what happened, however terrible, you wouldn’t forget it.’

The most poignant part was when he calls to speak with Hadley almost forty years later (the last time they speak with each other) – a world celebrated writer, so defeated in bearing out the consequences of his choices and leadings of his heart.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Alone in the crowd

You are here: Home » Supplements » Sunday Herald » Alone in the crowd
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, DH News Service, Jul 17 2017, 12:26 IST

Early Sunday morning, the phone rang. One of our neighbours was calling on behalf of another to say that they have left a bag of mangoes for us outside our door. Why did they not ring our doorbell and think it nice or necessary to say hello? The primary reason we exchange food, chats, concerns with each other in a community is to maintain camaraderie; to convey that we’re there for each other. Exchange of stuff cannot replace that.

Why is it not a surprise that the number of lonely people in big, crowded cities is on the rise? Is it not true that we’re not investing sufficient time and interest in forming meaningful relationships and day-to-day interactions with the people around us — neighbours, colleagues, and even family? According to studies, urban loneliness is as much a cause of early mortality as is obesity.

Chandrika is 24 and lives in a metro, away from her family. On a typical day, she leaves for work at 8 am and reaches home by 8 pm, to either cook a simple dinner, or order in, and then exhausted, calls it a day. On weekends, there is personal work and household chores to attend to. There is no time to socialise, meet up or make new friends in a new city. The interactions, even when there are people to go out and eat out with, remain superficial. She is alone in a city full of people.

Shift in priorities
What is revealing is how Chandrika is resigned to this situation. She says she is very clear that at this crucial stage at the start of her career, she would rather focus on it than invest time in making friends.

This is the story of a growing number of young people who we least expect to be lonely – not just those who stay away from their families, but also those who stay with one. There is only so much that they can fit into their lives and they would rather give the time they have to their careers and professions. Doing well in life is valued more than their being happy and having strong bonds with others. Our careers and professions have come to define us in more definitive ways.

Loneliness is generally associated with people who are single, old and socially awkward or those who choose to stay away. But with single, individual households on the rise, especially in big cities where people move for work or education leaving their families behind, it spares few. Too often, many of those who move to big cities and metros support families back home and do not earn enough to have their families come to live with them. This is especially the case with house helps, cooks, drivers and security guards. Also, social structures are in a state of flux — marriages are less lasting, people are marrying and having children late. So, more people than ever before are living alone.

There is a thin line between individualism and selfishness. Be yourself, realise your dreams, achieve your full potential — they are all very inspiring and empowering ideas to live by, but these may also be leading us to become excessively individualistic and to focus all our energies in our own achievements. My life, my money, my home, my time — we’re becoming more and more self-absorbed. Each person in the family is seeking and pursuing opportunities of personal growth that may not always contribute to a happy family life. Our days are neatly slotted to fit in work, commute, and housework, but there is nary a slot for conversations with family, meeting friends or calling up relatives. Unplanned visits or phone calls upset our schedules and are not welcome.

German psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, in her seminal essay on loneliness, defined it as the ‘want of intimacy’. So it is not a surprise that loneliness can be experienced while living with family, in the company of others, if one cannot make meaningful connections with them.

Armchair society
Apparently, when the radio came, it was said that it would isolate people. We have transitioned many times since — to television, the computer, the Internet and the smartphone. The fact that modern technology has helped us to connect with our friends and relatives across the world cannot be contested. But it is still a my-will-my-time engagement. A person battling loneliness may not have the inclination to engage with ‘friends’ online. People who lack social skills, or have social anxiety, retreat into the ‘connected’ world of the internet and become lonelier from the lack of ‘real’ interaction.

When India won the World Cup Cricket quarter-final against Pakistan in 1996, instantly and instinctively, everyone in our housing society in Delhi came out cheering, dancing and beating thalis. I have not seen anything like that since. Even with all the communication on Facebook and WhatsApp, it is difficult to get a sizeable group of people together for a social cause or event. We’re given to armchair activism and there is a marked decline in our civic and social engagements that bring people together.

We also seem to need each other less. Mutual dependence is increasingly frowned upon. Everyone has help at their fingertips — whether it is to call a doctor, a cab, to order food or any other service. In small towns and cities, people still make the effort to visit the sick, the home-alone and the bereaved.

Neighbours and friends would earlier cook food for a grieving family. It was not just about providing food – it was about people coming together, talking, sharing, being around. When we do away with age-old traditions, we sometimes also lose vital human ties built on closeness and warmth.

Recently, when our friends had an open house, we had a wonderful time mixing casually with people of different age groups and backgrounds. It made me think of our childhood homes that were always ‘open house’, where people dropped by any time of the day and more often than not, shared a meal. Often, children in families that have limited social interactions are awkward with visitors. It is normal these days to visit someone and not get to meet and talk to their children at all. Children are no longer encouraged to meet or greet visitors.

Parents seem to prefer to have children depend on technology more than on human interactions. Look around in a restaurant and you are sure to spot a baby or two sitting quietly staring at the screen of a phone or a tablet. Parents get them hooked to these ‘pacifiers’ to free themselves of the responsibility of taking care of them, engaging with them. This, when people are clearly noticing good-versus-bad parenting. Recently, a blog post about a couple at an airport patiently caring for and comforting their twins, went viral. The writer called them ‘parenting champs’. It takes a lot to care for children. So does making and keeping friends. As for technology, whether it is a boon or a bane is totally in the hands of the user.

Give to receive
Manjul is a single parent, and when her daughter left home for the university, I asked her if she felt lonely. Quietly but very surely, she told me she’s too busy to be that. Manjul runs a not-for-profit for women who have fewer opportunities to earn and live with dignity. I’m sure she’s lonely sometimes, but she has chosen a way out. When we extend a helping hand to others, we help ourselves the most.

The elderly become lonely when they give up participating in life, feeling too old to follow their passions. The body and the mind do slow us down and life’s little tragedies – passing away of contemporaries, retirement, empty nest... can all lead to a greater feeling of not being useful, of abandonment.

But every individual, in any circumstance or stage of life – old, infirm, unhappy, grieving – has something to share with the world, something to give. Each of us has to go out and get to work, sharing our skills and stories, caring for someone, cooking, gardening, dancing, exercising, keeping oneself gainfully occupied so we help ourselves and others. This is the only way to guard ourselves against loneliness – to invest in hobbies and pursuits; to take interest in the work of others and to contribute to our communities in the meaningful ways that we can.

A recent news story tells us of a retirement home in the Netherlands that provides students with free accommodation in exchange for spending time with its elderly inmates. The company of young people helps the elderly cope with the challenges of old age and isolation.

There is also avant-garde R&D going on into building humanoid robots that not only assist humans, but can also express emotions. This year, a social robot, iPal, is slated to be launched in the US. The robot is expected to give company to the lonely – home alone children and the elderly. According to news reports, "Its emotion management system senses and responds to happiness, depression and loneliness. It can act happy when the child is happy, and encouraging when the child is sad." A scientific feat no doubt, but also one that exposes our human failing.