Thursday, August 28, 2014

PRIVATE INDIA: A One and Only Avatar

The location is Mumbai, home to Bollywood and business capital of India. The branch of a very influential international detective agency has taken up a case. The agency is not Interpol. The agency is not Scotland Yard. The agency you have come across here is Private, India bureau. A reluctant alcoholic named Santosh Wagh heads Private India. Inside his head, a demonic nightmare keeps playing, in which he and his family—wife Isha and son Pravir—are taking a trip to a hill station. On their return, their car smashes onto a thick peepal tree at a hairpin turn. The man loses his wife and son. The man loses himself.

“You killed them, you drunk bastard.”

His mind keeps nudging his conscience. Santosh’s only resort is liquor. But he was also grateful to a man who saved his life that was about to fall apart, with a helping hand—a job as the head of Private’s India bureau. The man’s name is Jack, Jack Morgan.
Image Courtesy: Ashwin Sanghi

In my review of James Patterson’s first book in the series Private, I wrote, “Every detective story relies upon either a mind that concocts something disastrous, unacceptable to the social, moral and ethical codes or a person simply missing. The detective’s job would be to chalk out this enemy and bring out the complete picture of their antagonism through the investigation. That is where detectives come in. They often carry away the credit of the game and not the villains.”   

In Private India, the latest installment of the prestigious, highly popular, and often treated as an undeniably fashionable new series Private, James Patterson is collaborating with Ashwin Sanghi. Ashwin Sanghi began his self-publishing career through The Rozabal Line, a story closely modeled on Dan Brown’s phenomenal thriller The Da Vinci Code. His next book was Chanakya's Chant, which was followed by The Krishna Key. The latter follows Dan Brown’s narrative strategies closely. However, as a book, its layout and chapter divisions were much closer to another bestselling phenomenon, James Patterson. After publishing The Krishna Key, Ashwin Sanghi was recommended to Mr. Patterson by someone in the Random House India. Mr. Patterson, during those days, was looking for a writer to co-author his new book in the Private series. Apparently, he chooses writers from different territories depending upon where each story is set. In Private India, the story of Indian bureau of Private agency, therefore, he chose to collaborate with Ashwin Sanghi.
Image Courtesy: James Patterson

James Patterson began the series named Private with Maxine Paetro. When I revisit the first book in Private series, I find it more appealing that what I felt when I read it for the first time. There are interesting connections laid out with the original Private-team. In Private India, Jack Morgan, the protagonist of Private, the first book, now the boss of the Private agency across the world arrives as a supporting cast. He visits India and eats Kebab from the secretive abode of Private India, in Mumbai. But his visit is not lured by Kebab alone. He is in India for some mysterious purpose.

Why James Patterson is successful isn’t the important question. It may be due to many reasons and marketing minds might call it with different names. The secret of success, apparently, does not matter. What matters for a reader like me, though, is the question: has Mr. Patterson banged out a super cool book this time?

(I will give you the answer, but after a few more analysis)
Image of thugs: Courtesy: Google

Ashwin Sanghi’s contribution has been one of the curious matters I was looking forward to in Private India. Although the novel is laced with trademark techniques from James Patterson, like short chapters, large fonts, unexpected twists, that occasional stream of consciousness, and the preoccupation with names of commercial products, Sanghi finds his voice through mythological elements. Similar to James Patterson’s inclination to use titles from popular soaps and names of commercial products, Ashwin Sanghi has used a deluge of mythological connections and connotations in his novel The Krishna Key. From this novel onwards, gurus of Indian writings in English have proclaimed that Sanghi has an undeniable bend for mythology (Indian mythology). Where it had been used mattered less when compared to the frequency some mythical mantra or sign, has been deployed by the author.

Serving this new dish, a murder mystery with a mythological conspiracy theory at its base, Sanghi created a success through The Krishna Key. The Indian penchant for Dan Brown and the popular belief that even airplanes are invented by the rishis (or wandering saints) of India, watered the success of The Krishna Key. In Private India, Ashwin sanghi proclaims his space as the craftsman of modern urban legends. For this purpose, he unearths an ancient cult of murderers. But before getting into that we must look into how Ashwin and James had worked together on Private India.

James Patterson is an American author. He is a hit machine in the world of books. He has a library of books that bear his name on their cover. He is also one of the very few authors to get a frequent position in the New York Times Bestseller list. Ashwin Sanghi is an Indian author. He does not work in the same style as Patterson does. Sanghi writes Historical fiction. He hasn’t written anything else, yet. How would it have been like for both these authors, while working together?

In an interview given to the Wall Street Journal, Ashwin Sanghi reveals that the Indian author had written the first draft of Private India and sent it to Mr. Patterson. “James would send me back a bulleted list saying what works beautifully and also his recommendations,” Ashwin said in the interview. (Source)
Aerial View of Mumbai: Courtesy: Google

In Private India, Ashwin Sanghi uses an ancient cult of Durga worshippers in order to create suspenseful action. The cult is known as the Thuggee. However, one might wonder how this ancient secret order has been brought to life in the present day Mumbai. This is where a psychopathic serial killer plays his role. This is the main story that I conveniently forgot to mention in the beginning. The serial killer poses a serious moral threat: eliminating women. The detective has to chase this misogynist down in order to curb the upheaval, and atone the denigration of womanhood. This moral problem is at the base of this detective murder mystery, which is also a thriller.

The book is copyrighted to James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi’s name only appears in the book. It hasn’t been made clear yet whether Ashwin Sanghi has any rights on the book.

Whether Ashwin Sanghi possesses the copyrights or not, he can surely be proud of Private India. I have posed a question that I felt my readers and those many readers of James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi might be asking themselves. “Has Mr. Patterson banged out a super cool book this time?” It has only one answer. Thriller fans in India might not have read a book of similar quality and entertainment value, at any time in the history of Indian English popular fiction. Private India is a mass-market popular fiction. It is a one and only avatar of this kind, yet. Thanks to James Patterson. Congratulations Ashwin Sanghi, for this mega chance to work with James Patterson and for bringing out the best in you.  

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

INDIAN SUMMER: Stories Behind Histories

Image Courtesy: Alex von Tunzelmann
I doubt reading history can make an individual wiser. I am certain that it can shock us. This shock wave takes birth at the crack between what is the perceived history and the stories behind that history. Often the stories behind history are beyond reconciliation resulting in mass violence and murders. Salman Rushdie tried that once and he faced the fatwa. Dan Brown tried to decipher Da Vinci in his rather playful quirk called The Da Vinci Code. And this book is still banned among many Christian communities. I remember one of my friends’ words that he had spoken to one of his students, “If you wrote a paper on The Da Vinci Code, you might end up in trouble.”

Image Courtesy: Google
Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann, published in 2007, is one such book that can shake some of us from our foundational thoughts on Indian history, especially the story of Indian freedom struggle. Unlike many of the so-called groundbreaking books, Tunzelmann’s book does not relocate the existing paradigms or unravel a chaotic vision. In a gentle act of unearthing, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire portrays the story of Indian struggle for independence in a rather fresh light, leaving some of the stones unturned. For Tunzelmann, unlike a recent comment by Arundhathi Roy, the author of God of Small Things, Gandhi remains an influential figure. In Tunzelmann’s own words, “It is within the context of this tightening of the imperial shackles that the swift and dazzling rise of Gandhi can be understood.” (38)   

For someone who studied Indian history Tunzelmann’s book might not bring any enlightenment. However, with her evocative style and lucid prose, Tunzelmann wins open the reader’s mind into a historical landscape beautiful like a novel and wondrous like a museum of exotic samples. Rarely can one feel bored reading Indian Summer, although this books is a long historical non-fiction. Tunzelmann narrates the history of the grand downfall of an empire and the equally thrilling turns in the history of two newly independent nations with a history of millennia. She does it in a language that is charming and lucid. In finding the drama in history, Tunzelmann has been exceptionally successful. And this makes Indian Summer a book worth reading.

Image Courtesy: Google
What makes Indian Summer the most impressive book on Indian freedom struggle is its ardent advocacy of how some individuals changes the course of the history of three nations. The Mountbattens and the Nehrus play crucial roles as individuals in the formative history of three nations—Britain, India and Pakistan. “Dickie and Edwina had met in October 1920,” she writes. I quoted this line to indicate how story-like her narrative style and concerns are, in this book.

Image Courtesy: Google
The scope of the book, though, does not end with telling the world how some influential individuals influenced the national history of three nations. Indian Summer proves that national histories are often misguiding. For example, any student of Indian history or Post-colonial Theory would doubtlessly blame Lord Macaulay for his infamous educations reforms as the grease in the grand machinery of British Imperialism. However, in Tunzelmann’s research one might come across, quite unprecedentedly, a different Macaulay, presenting his opinion regarding the interference of The East India Company in India. “Presenting the scheme to parliament, Thomas Babington Macaulay freely admitted that licensing out British sovereignty to a private company was inappropriate.” (15)

Indian Summer presents some interesting out look into these events that are kept rather obscure due to many factors. Occasionally surprising with an undoubtedly capturing narrative style, Indian Summer is surely worth a shot, not just for history buffs, but also for those who keep an eye open for spicy stories. Alex von Tunzelmann’s second book is Red Heat published in 2011.     

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

THE JOURNEY HOME: A Review

“Matthew Thomas interview: 'I learned how to be a person writing this thing'A schoolteacher by day, the 'new Jonathan Franzen' crafted his million-dollar debut novel by night at his kitchen table.” [Courtesy: the guardian.com]

The above mentioned is the title of one of the article that appeared in The Guardian newspaper’s online edition. An author read it and immediately thought to himself; ‘hmm…that author is older than I am.’ [Meaning, I could still be writing my mega-novel by the time I am his age] Thankfully, the author caught himself thinking this embarrassing thought. He was looking at the image of the author given along with the article. Perhaps, many of us had gone through the same phase of mindset. I don’t think it’s the specific case with writers alone. Taking this demeanor as a sign of jealousy would be yet another way to embarrass ourselves. So let us be frank and put it aside. As writers, we all want to write artistically brilliant and financially successful books.
Image Courtesy: Radhanath Swami

The sight of someone else achieving this before us might frustrate some of us. This, in no way, suggests our grudge or hatred for another writer. Therefore, let us not point the finger at ourselves and question our remaining peace of mind. Self-denial isn’t the best strategy for writers. As a young boy, I always felt that my life has been drawn towards some higher purpose than just living, getting a job, getting married, reproducing, and dying. For me, life has a higher meaning. Even as a child, I felt that deep within me. Later, I realized that every individual has a specific means to achieve this meaning. This means is popularly known in every tradition as The Way. For me, The Way was writing.  

I came across a book that described, quite fascinatingly, what it means to have the sense of purpose in life. The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami by Radhanath Swami is an inspiring story of a man’s search for meaning. Through this journey of self-actualization, a young Richard Slavin gains control over all his doubts regarding existence. He accomplishes this through a journey. The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami is centered on Radhanath Swami’s journey into the spiritual land and culture of India. Even as a child, he describes that he preferred to follow strange customs and traditions in his daily life. One such behavior include sitting on the floor while eating, a distinctly Indian cultural trait. “Having better things than others made me feel embarrassed,” he saying regarding his habits that may appear strange in a young boy from the US.

Radhanath Swami was born to Jewish parents in the US in 1950. As a teenager, Radhanath Swami “had begun to crave a purpose in life beyond wealth, prestige and the fads of society.” As an author, I consider this as a moment of unification, a portal that connects two individuals from seemingly different backgrounds and Faiths. However, The Journey Home provides us with a brighter vision than what we get from a profit centered ‘relativized’ worldview. Perhaps this self-reductionism makes the individual mentioned in the beginning paragraph feel uncomfortable about the publication of some other writer’s latest novel.       
Image Courtesy: Radhanath Swami

“To hate those who hated me was to share the same disease.” An awareness centered on the Divine side of human individual, Radhanath Swami seeks out his wisdom. In the final stage of his quest for wisdom, the monk arrives in Indian and confronts the spiritual tradition that had until that moment fascinated his consciousness. From his narrative, it becomes clear that he must have had an unspoken connection with the Indian culture and its multifarious nuances.

The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami is not just an autobiography. It is also a book that inspires one to set out in the journey of one’s dream. The ‘dream’ here is not just a vague metaphysical idea. The purpose or dream in the life of little Richie was to know about his own inner sense. Call it Nirvana or self-actualization, Radhanath Swami’s autobiography guides the reader through the risks and benefits of a journey in order to gain insight into the same.    

Friday, August 15, 2014

INDEPENDENCE DAY: Qualms over Freedom

The college I work at has a policy of students wearing uniforms, from which they are exempted on all Wednesdays. The previous Wednesday, one girl student had donned a fancy costume, perhaps just to celebrate her newly gained freedom of college life.

The dress looked good on her. It wasn’t vulgar either. However, some senior students had problems and they reported this unwelcoming tendency in the junior girl student to the authorities. Following this step, the girl student received a statutory warning from the department. Later that day, I was asked to give a lecture on the dress code accepted by the college. I was divided about what my stand should be, especially when I did not see anything wrong with the dressing of the girl, personally. However, I must also do the job I am asked to, right? So I went to their class. Started talking about the accepted dress codes at college. That was when the girl stood up and asked me, “Sir, aren’t we living in free and independent India? Why should we then bother about what someone else thinks about my clothing?”

Image Courtesy: Google
If you have been into teaching career, you may know the answer to her question. At least, you may know how to answer her question.

“The general rules of a society are important. We must not question some codes of conduct,” I said. She nodded, quite understandingly. For me, the teacher, the answers were as deceptive as a piece of advice from a “how-to” website. At that moment though, I did not have a better option.

The question of the girl student made me think about the apparent breach between national independence and individual freedom. Individual freedom is more of a question of morality than a political idea. However, as I understand it, politics has a lot to with the idea of ‘individual freedom’ too. All politics throughout the world make use of this grand notion in order to succumb freethinking individuals to participate in their ideological circus.

The girl student of mine was clearly a victim of the same circus. If national independence corresponds directly to personal freedom, shouldn’t we all be free? What is freedom? Is it a metaphor for following social conventions? What else is freedom other than that?
Image Courtesy: Google

Perhaps all definition of freedom is flawed, much as the idea of ‘individual freedom’ itself. As Carl Jung suggests in his seminal work, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, the purpose of human life is to acquire knowledge and understanding about one’s existence. This motivating concept is enough to drive me through this puzzling mud of a question about ‘freedom’. In order to share an insight that I gathered recently, I would like to draw your attention to the recently released second installment in the 300 movie series. Directed by Noam Murro, “300: Rise of an Empire” portrays the gruesome battle between the Persians and the Greeks.

The motivation that holds the soldiers of Greece together against their mighty enemy, the war-machine of Persia is the glory of martyrdom. “For glory” the army of Greece confronts the Persians. Significantly enough, a discourse of “freedom” surfaces intermittently throughout the movie. Although in the movie, it is shown as if democracy is a feeble phenomenon when compared to battles and bloodshed it is interesting to see the way freedom is portrayed. The soldiers don’t doubt, for a minute the glory of martyrdom. They are, on the contrary see it as an opportunity to establish their bravery and courage and of course freedom. One can observe a valuable message here. I am not sure if Noam Murro was aware if this, or was any of his writers.

The way a soldier constructs within his mental walls, an image of martyrdom and glory and the freedom that results from practicing those two previous virtues, every individual living in an independent nation has the chance to assert one’s freedom. The glory of martyrdom, under the circumstances, is what drives the brave soldiers of Greece forward. If we can apply this psychological tactics to our life in an independent nation, individual freedom would no longer be a taboo. What the soldiers of Greece and the Spartans use in their combat as a strategy is the simple technique of putting their imagination into use.
 
Image Courtesy: Google
This one idea can change the way we structure our communities and social hierarchy. The individual can have full freedom in his mind and still be in harmony with the state or the social structure. Imagination lets one take any form one wants, and cross any hurdle there is in the path to self-fulfillment. A notable suggestion towards this direction comes from Albert Einstein. Here is a popular quote by Einstein, a friend of mine once sent me. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

The basic idea of freedom stems from the individual’s responsibility to live in harmony with other higher and complex structures of society. (Or so is the common notion.) However, over the years, perhaps due to the politicization of individual liberation, ‘freedom’ has become a term of high controversy. Individual liberty is often looked upon with the same attitude as bohemianism. Unlike bohemianism, freedom is a concept grounded in universal morality. It stems from the thought that every individual has an equal right to live upon this earth and enjoy the fruit of one’s work. This powerful moral concept has a great significance in forging the idea of ‘individual liberation’. Instead of politicizing this idea, if one can nurture a practice of experiencing freedom within the boundless space of one’s imagination, conflicts such as the one my student felt could be avoided.
Image Courtesy: Google

My students understand. They have promised me that next Wednesday they will surely take care of their individual freedom and practice what is permitted by the society. I always got this sensation when I look at their faces that they hear the call of wisdom and their minds are receptive.

I wish a Happy Independence Day for all my Indian readers, friends, and their family.               

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Peter Pan of World Cinema

On Robin Williams, Imagination, and Peter Pan

“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.

Sir James Matthew Barrie’s 1911 novel of the boy who never grows up portrays the magical life of a boy who, as the story goes, never grows up. His name is well known, Peter Pan. In the 1991 film Hook, directed by Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams plays the role of Peter Pan. In this movie, though, there is a slight difference from the original Barrie’s story. The Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation is all grown up and different. He leads a “normal” life and has a family.

At first, I thought I would write an article about the legendary Robin Williams, who is in the news the past couple of days due to his apparent suicide. They say the actor was subdued by a serious depression. Overcome by a psychological darkness many individuals have decided to obliterate their physical existence, over the years; those include famous people and ordinary ones. What else can be done when the most important organ in human body, the gateway to the other world, human mind, is clouded by gloom and hopelessness?

A truth that I normally would not reveal to my orthodox family is that I love cinema. I would have become an actor had the bug of writing not been so adamantly affirming its space in my psyche. I love to watch movies and Robin Williams is part of that cinematic life-experience I gathered over the years. Two of my favorite movies include August Rush and Hook, both of them beautiful with Robin William’s unforgettable performances. An apparent irony hooked me and pained my heart when I first heard about Robin William’s demise. The irony then took me to another dimension of thinking. But what is that irony anyway?
Image Courtesy: Google

Hook is a different version of Peter Pan. In this adaptation, Steven Spielberg changes many things one might find in the Peter Pan novel or the play. However, two things, Mr. Steven Spielberg keep intact. These two ideas are crucial in understanding the significance of the novel as well as how to overcome depression. This, my dear readers, is the very irony I have been talking about. The same actor who played the key role in the movie about overcoming life’s problems had succumbed to life, or I would rather say succumbed to the lack of passion for life. That’s how I would like to define “depression”—lack of passion for life. On a minor scale, I myself am a victim of depression. I have written about it many times. Mostly, it appears to me in the form of “writer’s block”. I deal with it through writing and by passionately and determinedly bringing my mind back on track, in harmony with my creative life.

The creative energy that give birth to all beings and non-beings is the original source of all thought and non-thought. Therefore, once an individual finds harmony with that Creative Source, one is at peace. The peace that oozes from the Creative Source is everlasting (not just in a religious sense) and pure. Is there something called ‘pure peace’? Perhaps, there really is. In order to achieve this Divine peace and harmony, we have an impressive tool; Peter Pan’s magic spell—imagination.

Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, has a limited life. This limitation is part of his identity, that of being static in growth. However, Stephen Spielberg changes this feature into a grown up individual’s experiences in life. The static life that the grown up Peter Pan experiences in the movie incurs quite the same agony as the lack of growth in a child, when one thinks about it. However, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is surprisingly obsessed with this frozen growth. Peter views his life as an assortment of fun and play through a prolonged childhood.

There surely is more to this fascinating cute story than what meets the eye at a first glance. J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a novel about bringing heat into frozen landscapes of our life. The boy who never grows up is utterly happy about his state of being a child always. However, observed closely, one can see clear signs of matured mental activity in Peter through the story. However, Peter hides effectively, all these traces of growing up through his funny games and word plays.

“Forget them, Wendy. Forget them all. Come with me where you'll never, never have to worry about grown up things again.” (spoken by Peter.)

One comes across some unbelievable plays from among the children and Peter Pan. In their child play, they are the saviors of Neverland from Captain Hook, a bloody pirate who captures children and makes them work in his pirate ship.
Image Courtesy: Google

Peter Pan, Wendy, and other children become part of the hunting games and battle games that take serious nature, often. The crocodile, Indians, pirates, the fear of forgetting, all bind the children into believing in the necessity of trusting Peter Pan’s magical formula. A clearer understanding of this can be obtained from the Stephen Spielberg movie Hook, in which Robin Williams realizes, as an adult the importance of having a powerful imagination. Yes, the magic formula of Peter Pan.

From the frozenness of life, the fear of losing beloved ones, and being forgotten by others Peter Pan rises to self-actualization by employing the formula called imagination.

“Of all the delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact, not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed. When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real. That is why there are night-lights.”                      

The problem
The word imagination was borrowed into English from Latin. The Latin verb “imaginari” means to “picture to oneself”. In other words, imagination suggests a highly subjective act, wherein one holds an image to oneself about anything or anyone in any way that pleases or conforms to one’s intentions.

Imagination surely interferes with the acculturation of any individual and thus it affects others, not just the individual involved in the process of imagining something. Imagine yourself to be someone else or something else. The moment you do, you are transcending the information given to you about yourself by the society. Who we are, in our cultures, is more important that who we want to become. In the latter, one transcends the dictums of the society, and in the former, there is an unquestioned submission to the will of the social structure. This is what causes Peter’s fear of losing Neverland and his beloved friends to forgetting.

“Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”― Peter Pan.  
            
The Solution
How does imagination become the magic formula then? The Book of Proverbs suggests what we need here.
“Get wisdom,
and whatever you get, get insight.” __Proverbs 4: 7
Imagination with insight can lead a man into new horizons of understanding, clear-sightedness, and thus, joy. Imagination in its raw usage might jeopardize one’s harmony with the social surroundings. However, applied with insight, imagination can be the best tool to surpass and solve existential dilemmas. This is the very reason Peter Pan, at the end of the novel comes out victorious against Hook and the crocodile.

A rather outward directed imagination is what we see when Peter suggests to Wendy “Never say goodbye…” However, the insightful practice of imagination could only get them out of the dilemmas of Neverland. Insightful imagination brings the crocodile with a clock in its belly to the pirate ship.

Albert Einstein’s words are of seminal importance here, to drive this point home.
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”__ Albert Einstein.

What else? Well, I wish, Robin Williams, the Peter Pan of world cinema had realized that the frozen gloom of mind could be overcome. I wish he had thought of a second chance.

Perhaps, he is in on an adventure.

Yes, he might be.

Monday, August 11, 2014

VAIKOM MUHAMMAD BASHEER: A Time-Travelling Experience

The story of how I discovered Basheer of words.

His importance is in the fact that every Keralite knows his name. Normally, the criterion to be known by everyone in Kerala is politics. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer was a writer without a strong inclination towards propagandism in literature. He was a storyteller who focused all his energies in establishing the connection of his subjectivity with the cosmic objectivity. His works, therefore, are tantalizingly personal and impressively authentic. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer stands out as one of the very few writers in Malayalam language, who could gather public interest without the interference of visible politics. He died in 5 July 1994.

The Present
Fourteen years after his death, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer still holds his charm and charisma to readers in Malayalam. This is nothing extraordinary. What is beyond comprehension is that like many other ‘highly educated’ individuals, who had severed their umbilical cord with mother Malayalam at a much younger age, the author of this article too finds the attraction irresistible towards ‘Basheerian’ literature.

This is a concept I mentioned in one of my classes too. Imagine the possibility of travelling trough time. Imagine you are communicating with the person even after his or her lifetime. This is precisely what is reflected when I face Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s writings now. The other day, I was in Kannur, the city lost to cultural perverts, who’d never read a book unless to impress another person or to pass a Public Service Commission Exam. In the city, I was expecting Onam consumer fairs—grand consumer extravaganza. However, the first tent I came across was the one with a fancy banner that said “18 Puranas, first time in Kerala.” Hell, whatever that meant, I was hooked. It was a book exhibition and sale. After all, I had just found the best way to get intoxicated in a city of boredom—a book fair.

I went inside. Making my first guesses coming true, it was the book fest organized by Kerala’s most important amazon of a book company. If I even mentioned their name here, they would shut down my blog simply by blowing the air in their attitude. The entryway was full of Malayalam books that grinned at me with their glossy covers. I ventured through a mother and her fat girl on a narrow trail to reach at the head of the line to see if there are English books there. I found the English section (a very small portion) at the other end of the line of books that were kept at the entryway.
An excerpt from Pathummayude Aadu

Most of the English titles were either Indian English political propaganda or a few selected bestselling authors. I found some of my favorites there too. However, I would not dare buy them. No, I did not even think about buying. Books are very costly in bookshops around Kannur, especially at the seller, whose book fair I was visiting. Their banner outside said they would give ten percent discount. This, I did not think would make any difference to cut the costs down. They had The Fault in Our Stars for about Rs 300, but I had bought it already through Amazon.in for about half the money. In other words, I wasn’t impressed. I turned to other tables. Rows of Malayalam books illuminated no interest in me, either to turn their pages or to look at the cover design, let alone to buy one of them.

I started walking faster and reached towards the end of the exhibited books. There I found the inspiration for this article—the collections and novels by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. His books were short with easy prices and ‘simple’. His language was the language of the ordinary individual from Malabar. He did not have the aura of the high-handed cultural elitists. He was a common man, or so he was accepted by the masses. The high culture and university students also accepted Vaikom Muhammad Basheer as an author. This was part of the greatness in him. He was the Mark Twain of Malayalam literature.

The Past
My first encounter with Basheer is not in my memory any more. I have clearly forgotten when it happened and why. My strongest educated guess is that it might be through the textbooks that were prescribed for the course in my high school. I remember studying his novel, Pathummayude Aadu when I was in tenth grade. In fact, I also remember not merely studying the novel, but imbibing every bit of its spirit into my mind as a young writer and feeling enthusiastic about copying the writer’s techniques. Pathummayude Aadu was a worthwhile read, indeed. I owe partly, the enthusiasm I felt to the teacher who taught us Malayalam language. I remember two of them, especially: Raghavan master and Gopinathan master. I pray for their good health and long life. May many thirsty young minds find refuge in the abundant intellectual shade of these charismatic teachers. This is one of the reasons I dedicated my third book Prabuddha: the Clear-sighted to all my teachers.

Basheer was a constant driving force in all those wonderful classes led by Gopinathan master. That was where I fell in genuine love with his style and language. However, my academic environment could not sustain my love for Malayalam for long. After tenth, I joined another school for completing twelfth because the school I studied at did not conduct Higher Secondary course during those days. I found refuge in the inept library at the new school. Basheer was my constant companion.

Where did I get the idea of buying books? I do not remember. Perhaps, from my father. He has a habit of buying books and in my childhood, I was amazed at the money he used to spend in books. For everyone else in the family it was a total waste of time and money. However, even as a child, I realized there was magic in those books. During my twelfth grade, I was obsessed by the idea of buying books. It felt cool, meaningful. (Not the world outside, of course, but to my inner world that I cherished)

The cover image of My Grandad Had an Elephant in Malayalam
My pocket money was about ten rupees during those days. This was the money required to buy lunch. I never asked money from my parents for any other needs. I never had any other needs. It owes to my parents’ diligence in providing me with the food and cloths I needed at the right time.

Five days, I spent without lunch. Now I had Rs 50. From a small literary bulletin arrived at home, I had a good awareness of the prices of books. I compared them day and night. I wanted the pleasure of reading to last longer. I was particularly interested in getting a book with the maximum number of pages in such a short supply of money.

This would be the first ever book I would buy with ‘my money’ or at least, I can say the money I earned out of accepting hunger for five consecutive days. Finally, I fixed my pointer on an author and a book. The book was the Malayalam original of My Grandad had an Elephant. The author was Vaikom Muhammad Basheer.

The Future
Out of everything I know about books, I feel most vulnerable and confused about what I might be reading in the future. I am not concerned about the end of books, like some high-handed publishers might argue. I am, on the other hand bothered about my own tastes in reading. E-books or paperbacks, I would be happy to get my hands on a good book. The book should talk to me, that’s all. As I say, the book should find me.

Will Vaikom Muhammad Basheer find me? (That lean old man in his grave.)

Hasn’t he already done that?
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