Pitfalls of Writing

Photo of John Poolieli Matthew

When I started writing, that was ages ago, I made no secret of my ambition to be a known, recognised writer. Perhaps this was considered as insolence on my part. Nobody said a kind word, in fact, I was sure they were laughing behind my back, “What he? Wants to become writer? Does he know the language? Does he know anything.” I regret having told them that I want to be a writer. Instead I should have said I want to be something else, poultry farmer, for instance.

There were some people who deliberately vilified my writing. It led to a lot of damage and self doubt. Writing as Stephen King described is like, “navigating the atlantic in a bath tub.” Yes, it is. It is the most hazardous profession there is. Even a comma, or an apostrophe can go against you.

It’s a universal thing. You may have experienced this impudence by friends and relatives. They said all they could to insult me and advised me to take up something else. There is no money in writing. How will you make ends meet? There’s money to be made in journalism if you are industrious enough, you know, make the right contacts. Journalists are rewarded for their coverage by industrialists and politicians. But when I entered journalism I realised that it was already full of bright guys who clung to their positions like leaches.

Then I worked as a content writer, a technical writer, and finally as a copywriter. I felt the pressure here, too. They think writers are slaves, who can be persuaded to turn in an entire website content in four days, yes, repeat, four days. That also includes, proof checking, and seeing if the fanciful designer hasn’t botched up the copy. Then the chairman decides to participate in an exhibition in a far-off city and all the flexes, display material, and brochures have to be written and printed and reached to a place called Kolhapur. You are told to go there by train to deliver the material. In Kolhapur you are told to share a guest house accommodation with a foul-smelling site manager who spends an hour in the toilet every morning. That, too, for four days.

Yeah, people don’t respect writers. There’s scant respect for the scribe these days. In olden times a “scribe” or “shastri” was respected and honoured. In Bible there is mention of “Pharisees” meaning priests and “scribes” meaning writers. In India Shastris were respected members of the community, accorded the greatest of honours.

 

So where’s the respect for writers? Except for the ones who have earned millions.

Vacation in Kerala

The vacation in Kerala was eventful, a revelation of sorts, as it always is. So, here I am with a bag of tales from God’s favourite country. I don’t know who all will read this and benefit, but here it is, my impressions.

Firstly, uneducated Malayali men are mostly wild and impulsive. They revel in being wild and uncontrollable, ingesting a bottle of whisky a day without any qualm and badmouthing everybody in the process. They destroy their own lives and that of their family members without thinking. All they can think about is liquor and sex. There is one such specimen in the house opposite my brother-in-law’s (BIL’s) house. He drinks, lazes around home, uses the worst profanities with his wife and children, and does no work. He is a pathetic sight, slouching his tall figure and walking on the street, trying to act dignified. He has had no education and was a waiter in a tea shop before he was kicked out. His wife is the breadwinner of the house. She tolerates him to some extent but loses her cool sometimes calling him the worst profanities when offended. She works as a domestic help and earns a good salary which can keep a family alive. But he goe s to her employer and borrows money, which is then deducted from her salary. These are people who get rice at Rs 2 and have health insurance and a pension when they are old. Yet, they can’t manage and depends on what is being doled out by the church and other charities.

Leave this specimen of depredation and move along to the services. A malayali craves for a government job as a thirsty animal seeks water in the Sahara. Once inside the job, he knows he is lord and master over his domain. He behaves like a satrap newly appointed in his august post. I wanted the schedule of a new air-conditioned bus services from Tiruvalla to Kochi. On three occasions I was given three different timings. How could I know which one was true? I was disconnected after the most perfunctory information. “That’s all you get,” must have been the understanding among them.

Then I try the Tiruvalla railway station. Here the inquiry desk doesn’t bother to answer the phone. Dang! After ten tries, I give up, in frustration. Since I have a smartphone with internet I could get the train schedule online. Thank God!

The countryside is incredibly beautiful. There are lush palms and rubber trees waving in the somnolent air, punctured by the call of exotic birds. There are the backwaters which add to the mystique of a tropical paradise. Many times I have been tempted to get down from the car I was travelling to walk along the bunds that separate the fields and have a bath in crystal clear water. Kerala doesn’t have industries so the water is pure.

There are also unsightly sights along the way. This is to be expected in all towns in India. In Ernakulam where I stay with my brother there isn’t proper garbage disposal. They have to pay for garbage to be collected. So what happens if they don’t have money to pay? They dump the garbage on street corners. Stern warnings have been put at street corners, to no avail. People still dump. This is a problem with all towns in Kerala. Development has brought with it many problems, and the towns are struggling to adapt.

With talk of development, there isn’t licence enough to develop infrastructure. The Aranmula airport project is one such. After a series of see-saw tilts and nudging, the project seems finally to have met an ignoble end with the civil aviation ministry too having withdrawn its consent. It would have meant good development, jobs, visibility to a small village to which I belong, where I was born. Yes, I belong to Aranmula village. It’s sad that this dream didn’t materialise.

The Kochi Metro is another development project that is limping. Land acquisition along parts of its route has been held up due to court cases. The work is going on, but progress is slow. It will take more than a year to resolve all these and the project will go into further delay.

On the way back I take a flight, ticket for which has been booked six months in advance. At the check-in counter I insist on a window seat and am given an upgrade to a SpicejetMax seat. It gives me pleasure to see people who have paid tens of thousands in cramped seats when I enjoy complete legroom freedom in the Max seats. Hehe! Ask and ye shall receive what?

Melissa Studdard’s Novel “Six Weeks to Yehida”

Cover Photo of Six Week To Yehidah by Melissa Studdard

Elmore Leonard advised writers not to open with the weather. However, Melissa Studdard, author of Six Weeks to Yehida goes and does just that. However, in her novel, not only does the opening work for her and her story, but it also gives the reader the feeling that here’s a talent that can do much more. This is an instance in which opening with the weather has helped the author bring a fairy tale quality to the writing.

It’s the story of Annalisa who is wafted into another world on an ordinary day with her two sheeps. The novel has several snatches of verse which adds to the book’s charm. The characters and their personalities grow on the reader and the wonderful vulnerability of the protagonist makes one sympathetic to her. Her adventures take her to bizarre worlds, lending the novel an Alice in Wonderland kind of charm. Bob the guides impresses, so does Kana.

It all ends when she realises that the magical world she has traversed was a dream and that for six weeks she was in a coma. This twist in the tale impressed me as a reader, and would impress any reader of this engaging book.

All through the book I could detect an Indian connection in words such as: Bharat Ratna, Sari, etc. Could it be that the author is a lover of India? In that case she should write a novel on India.

Subscribers Johntext India

Photo of Hans-Jürgen John

News from the Johntext ADMIN:

Johntext India has 2981 subscriber today. So every time an article is published here 2981 emails inform the readers from all over the world about this!

Congratulations and huge thanks to all fans and supporters!

Hans-Jürgen John is Hans John (@rafaelofirst) on Twitter and Hans.John.16 on Facebook. Hans writes on www.johntext.de and www.tage-bau.de

Book Review: Orfeo by Richard Powers

Cover photo of Orfeo by Richard Powers

Orfeo by Richard Powers is a novel that combines sci-fi with sheer mundane things like a hobby turning into an ordeal. Els is a chemistry man, a geneticist, and a life-long music addict, who plans to weave music into DNA strands in his hobby laboratory at home. He tinkers with genetic modification using equipment bought on internet sites. In addition, he composes music, and has done a few shows with his friend Richard. He is divorced, estranged from his only daughter, and lives the life of a recluse. The only thing that goes wrong in his sedate life is that he is found out when his dog dies and the police come to investigate. The policemen suspect him to be a bio terrorist and one day coming back from his morning walk, he discovers that his home has been broken into by the security agencies. He runs away, a fugitive now, sure that his genetic experiment will be viewed as being of grave security concerns by the agency, and he would be implicated.

Desperately, he runs away from home, drives through multiple states using a student’s smart phone. He realises he lives in the hell that is the modern world where every phone call can be traced to the exact location. So, wary, he plods on from state to state, depending on cash transactions, as he knows his credit card usage will be monitored by the agencies. There are excellent passages in the novel that brings us closer to the character of Els, his genius, his knowledge of music, his understanding of modern technology. Also he pre-empts discovery and arrest by his vast knowledge of science and technology.

For example, “(Russia) crumbles into a dozen-plus countries. All the world’s data weaves together into a web.” The language is terse and therefore the author holds reader in thrall, imagining what the next revelatory sentence could be. “Els said ‘do not invent simply discover.’ One or two of them understood him.” These are the sort of stray gems littered throughout the novel.

Els’ journey takes him on a whirlwind tour of the states of the United States and his wry humour keeps us involved. He visits his estranged wife and daughter. However, in the end, when he is caught in his daughter’s home, the narrative encounters its major stumbling block. There’s too much of technical details, beyond the comprehension of the lay reader. That’s the only drawback in this excellent novel. However, on the whole it’s a novel that entertains with the sheer brilliance of the author’s knowledge and innovative use of language and keeps us on the edge wanting to know more.

Why Are Indian Men Bad Mannered?

Photo of John P. Matthews

Indians can’t be lauded for their good manners. I will vouch for that any day. But there are common decencies they can adhere to, like apologising for something done by mistake, or, by oversight. No, they will not, apologise, as you will see here.

Yesterday I was on the way to a meeting, and there I was was calmly sauntering on the road to where I can find a rickshaw. Since I don’t own a car; rickshaws, the three-wheeled contraptions, are the favoured mode of transport. It’s cheap, though not comfortable.

A car sneaks behind me and when I turn around it is only inches behind me. It would have hit me if I had slowed down. I glare at the driver, who was, presumably in the process of parking his car before his opulent bungalow in our locality. I know him; he is my neighbour, though I haven’t talked to him. His action has shocked me, and I am in a bit of a tizzy as I walk to his car.

When I ask him why he didn’t sound the horn, he asks me, “Did I touch you?”

“You didn’t touch. But your car almost did.” I shouted.

The woman with him replied, “But, it didn’t touch no?”

I also know the woman; I have seen her countless times. They came to Artist village as renters, renting one of the houses. Fate favoured him and he made a lot of money agenting real estate deals. So today he has a big bungalow, a car, and is rich. The woman, his sister, does odd jobs, as she isn’t married. When I first saw her twenty-five years ago, she was a pretty girl, but now she has grown dowdy and has developed a florid face and can be considered as fat.

I usually don’t argue with women and so, I shrugged, put up my hands, and started walking. If he had said “sorry,” for a fault that was his, I would have been happy to let it go. But this incident showed that Indian men never say “sorry” they would self-righteously try to defend themselves and their positions. Not for them a decent apology like a gentleman.

As I was walking away I wondered why it was that when God gives you money and possessions he also makes you bad mannered and ugly.

Jeet Thayil’s Novel Narcopolis

Cover photo of Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Jeet Thayil’s Man Booker Prize short-listed novel Narcopolis.

For a long time I have been wanting to read Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis. No, this isn’t a case of hero-worship (Jeet is actually younger than me) for a person from my community, but a frank appreciation of a novel which is set in my urbs prima, Bombay. I know Jeet Thayil as an essayer of fine prose and poetry, and even our native places in Kerala aren’t far from each other.

Narcopolis is a many-layered piece about a man castrated to be a eunuch. I guess this is a system that is prevalent in India, only in India, that is. Here we have the eunuchs come to our home and if the child is born with inadequate sexual organs he is castrated to be an eunuch. A eunuch thus castrated can only become a beggar or a sex slave. Nothing could be sadder than a story of an eunuch (nowadays called transgender) in the class- and community-conscious Indian society. The transgender Dimple also works in an opium den set in the seventies when Thayil came of age and what is interesting is his re-creation of those days.

Through his exquisitely crafted prose – having the ring of poetry – Thayil recreates an era that has been forgotten. Those days in Bombay opium was easily available. There was marijuana in every street corner; there were the dons of Dongri who managed the narcotics business with diligence. Today the dons are on the run and drugs aren’t easily available. The opium dens of those days have closed down; the curtains have come down on an era of hedonistic excesses. Commissioner JRF Ribeiro the supercop and his brave men have seen to that.

The author moves easily across boundaries and time lines as is seen from Lee’s – a top-ranking Chinese official – story. Lee is marking his days in Bombay and is Dimple’s customer. Dimple is employed by Rashid in his opium den and Thayil reels out a stream of slang terms which stands for the use and abuse of the narcotic. Rashid is a man damaged by the profession and indulges in excesses of sex and gluttony. He seems like a man beyond redemption.

And, of course, there is the six-page opening sentence which as Thayil says “is a good sentence.” I find nothing wrong in that since Joyce has a page full of outdated degrees and qualifications in Ulysses.

The famous Malayalam writer MT Vasudevan Nair has said that every novel puts across a novel concept, a novel idea, something for the society to ruminate on. I can’t fish out the original Malayalam words, but he said as much. True Thayil has presented the unrecorded past of Bombay as a novel idea of which we may be unaware, but in which surely have played a part.

My only complaint with Narcopolis is that it ends too soon. I would have liked to see some more resolution and closures. I would have liked to read more about Dimple’s life and about Ramesh, Rumi, as he is called. He has some interesting quotes ascribed to him: “This chooth country, this cunt country, how the fuck are you supposed to live here without drugs?” But then a novel has to end somewhere doesn’t it?

The First Hundred Days of the New Government

A few thoughts that go out from India in the monsoon season. Well, the monsoon season is about to end and it has been an encouraging time as enough rainfall was received. It means India will have enough grain to feed its people and enough money in people’s pockets. India is primarily an agricultural country and as such if the farmer is happy the country is also happy.

The country has also seen the completion of Narendra Modi’s government’s hundred days. Modi made tall promises to be elected prime minister and now, naturally, people are evaluating his success/failure vis-a-vis those promises. A few things have changed. Government officers and staff who used to come to office around 10.30 a.m. are now rushing to the place of work at 9 a.m. This is a good thing and must be admired.

One of the policies announced is the Jan Dhan yojana in which poor people who don’t have bank accounts will get one. The idea is to transfer subsidies and other benefits directly to people’s banks, and, therefore, avoid the middle men. This is a good scheme from all outward appearances. But, if the accounts remain empty how will the banks administer around a billion accounts? Do they have the manpower, the resources?

The prime minister has also visited Japan and come away with investments totalling around USD 50 billion. The economic benefits of this will take time to show, however, this is a good sign of a developed nation’s interest in India. There’s a quid pro quo in this. Japan and India have a common enemy in China and this could be a case of “an enemy’s enemy is a friend.”

Terrorism, Maoism, economic disparity, these are issues the prime minister hasn’t dealt with yet. And, also communalism. The prime minister has asked for a ten year moratorium on communal violence (i.e. violence between religions and castes), but will this be possible at all to implement? Already there are rumblings of discontent which may grow into a groundswell, anytime. Afterall, Modi came to power on a communal agenda. Didn’t he?

The Monsoon Is Here!

After all, the rain did come. It was destined to. Thundering over the hills, sweeping aside the heat, turning the earth green, dripping down the eaves, well, turning the world green, as if a carpet is spread.. In my small house in the valley it fell in a cascade down the mountain, filled a dam, and then proceeded to flow smoothly down a canal made for the purpose.

The rain, the monsoon, the mausam (in Hindi), is a season of rejuvenation, happiness, and sadness. Happiness for the new world out there, and sadness because a lot of houses and low-lying areas get flooded in this season. In the great city yonder from my home the poor get poorer in the rain. Their food gets soaked, their furniture gets washed away, and they don’t have sleep for a few days because of the incessant rain. The government promises them flats in new buildings and, unfortunately, it gets a long time to be built. Meanwhile life goes on.

The rainy season has been erratic of late. Sometimes there is a big deluge, sometimes it hardly rains. Rain hasn’t been falling evenly these few past years. That’s a cause for worry. Some fields get excess rain and some fields get no rain. Where there is excess rain the crops get washed away, where there are no rains the crops wilt, turn brown, and die.

You say global warming? I say, yes, but can’t we build our ground water reserves? Create new ponds and bunds so our water isn’t washed away. No, I don’t mean big dams that submerge entire villages. I mean small earthen dams that can hold water. Nothing great to ask from our leaders. Surely they can do as much for us.

India has only three seasons in most of its territory. Summer, Monsoon, and Winter. Spring is hardly noticeable in most parts of the country and merges with summer. Flowers bloom not only in spring but in monsoon and winter also. This makes our country unique, exotic. There are flowers blooming at all times of the year and also verdant greenery through monsoon and winter.

Monsoon, or, mausam (the word from which it was derived) means rainy season. Mausam has also been turned into an euphemism for season. We consider rain as THE season, the season of happiness for the farmer, the tiller of the land.

So, um, have a good monsoon!

Literature with purpose to help