‘I liked your first story better.’
His spring-blue eyes that froze into icicles
at the mention of philosophy and high art,
they thaw, bloom, widen and mirror the skies
at the mention of simpler tales.
‘That one sounded accessible to all’.
His laughter echoes the birdsong,
that I try in vain to record every morning.
Some things cannot be captured in pixels
or even words, some moments are better lived.
I don’t tell him that the stories write me.
It is not as though I have a choice.
But all the same, I listen to him laugh,
as I do to the birds, with placid joy.
(7 April 2017)
An asylum seeker about to migrate to another country: “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveller returns. For so long it has beckoned me. This cliff upon which I stand today, this has been my little nest egg that I had tucked away for the future, my plan B. This little Himalayan town is the polar opposite of others, them where they go to renounce the material world for the abstraction, the endless light of an eternal life. Here where I stand, a poor priest once jumped into these swirling waters where the three mighty rivers merge into one. He was reborn as an emperor, they say, wealthy and handsome, kind and wise, surrounded by good family and friends, replete in the sixteen blessings of life. I too should like to return, someday. To the quietness of the leafy lanes that I have loved, the peace of mild blue skies, the unfailing joy of birdsong, to the hallowed libraries that I have seen, the blessed classrooms where I have been. To voices raised in laughter, to silent warmth of friendship, to glances, handclasps and words of love. In those moments, I remain. To them I will return someday. In another name, with another face.”
A watching stranger: “I see her from the bathroom window. Where have I seen her before? She stands close to the edge of the cliff. The wind blows the hair across her face so madly that now I see her, now I don’t. Hers is that sort of face which once seen, remains imprinted in the mind, as it has remained quietly somewhere within mine. Was it on that winter morning–maybe five, six years ago? The mass of humanity among the bright pink and yellow canopies, the overpowering smells, the muddy taste of cardamom tea in clay cups and the annoying anchor woman who was drooling over me so much that I had to shield my eyes by focusing on the audience. I knew my lines so well by then that I did not have to think too much to speak, and then she came in, midway and left early. I have seen her somewhere else too, recently. She is edging closer to the cliff. Stop, wait, don’t! It will get better, I want to tell her. Please wait. I open the window and shout, willing the wind to carry my voice across the river. She looks serene, hands clutched on the iron railing, eyes focused on the crystal waters. I suddenly remember where I had seen her last when with a graceful movement she steps over the rail. Suddenly she looks up and catches my eye as she glides like an angel into the streams the waters of which are bursting forever upon the rocks like fragments of stars. Unable to do anything else, I wave.”
On a sunny winter morning around five years ago, I listened to a young writer read. He was not conventionally handsome, but had a benign aura about him that few people do, a serene presence which radiated goodness. He spoke poignantly about his book, conveying intense emotions that sounded purer for the directness and lack of sentiment. I read his book soon afterwards with a great deal of pleasure, a meditation on the self in times of trial.
A few weeks ago, I had to look him up for a project and was shocked – His face had weathered a few decades into a collage of wrinkles and dark shadows and messy grey hair. His voice likewise was slower, as though worn with time and life. He could have passed for the father of the bonny lad whom I had seen five years ago. Only the kind expression remained. It sat sweetly on that once-seraphic countenance, which now invoked a crumbling sepulchral cherub in my mind.
My project done, I might never see him anymore, not even in Cyberspace. But I will read his book once more, those lines of achingly beautiful prose and reflect on his words about the changing seasons, the passing of time, and the meaning of life, and perhaps I will weep when I read, in a moment of shared humanity that I will sense across the printed page.
On a cold afternoon at Rewley House, this agent approaches me and my classmate with a broad smile.
‘So, what do you write?’ she asks us warmly.
I give her a thirty second elevator pitch on something I am working on, and mention that it is metafiction.
She looks away at the sound of the M-word. I blink and when I open my eyes, she has vanished. I spot her at the bar at the far end of the room and wonder if she had been real.
I rediscovered the joy of television for a while, thanks to a long, lingering spell of viral flu and found myself hooked to two particular serials on YouTube on the weekends.
The first was Upanyas, an old serial that I vaguely remembered from childhood. I was too young to watch it when it was first broadcast on Doordarshan many years ago. Watching it for the first time, I was delighted to find that it had a metafictional premise. A woman vacationing in a hill station meets her favourite novelist who is semi-retired and requests him to resume writing. The episodes then take parallel tracks, one following the author as he proceeds to create his story, and the other depicting the story which mirrors the author’s life and the characters around him. The author’s own story is far more interesting than the world that he writes into being.
Mohan Vatsal is by no means the perfect author or even a perfect man. There are hints of a shady past linked to his multiple divorces, which comes out when his partner attempts suicide. His condescending attitude towards everyone including his reader and artistic arrogance which comes out through his reflections on the world around him make him a very complex character, though one who is self-assured of his powers of creation. When the reader Yashodhara points out that his novel was less of a plotted story and more a group of incidents loosely connected together, he acknowledges that he had been inspired to write it that way.
The character of the Vatsal’s partner Prabhavati is reminiscent of Mohini in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Party. Both women fall in love with artists on account of their art and later find themselves unwanted, alone, bereft of their identity, perhaps hinting that relationships between authors and readers are best when they stay on either side of the page. A victim of domestic violence, Prabhavati seeks solace from her troubled marriage in Vatsal’s books and gets into a relationship with him. Short flashbacks reveal her own artistic temperament with flashes of inspiration that are comparable, even superior to Vatsal’s imagination. When he becomes uncomfortable with her creative expressions, she is happy to remain in his shadow, cooking and keeping house for him until he tires of her presence, and she grows frustrated and insecure as their relationship does not have a future. Vatsal admits to himself that Prabhavati’s dependence strengthens him as he feeds off her need for him. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Prabhavati makes a dignified exit from Vatsal’s life. In a poignant scene, she tells the writer that she was leaving for a place where all her needs would be met – food, clothing and most importantly, books to read.
A number of literary references and philosophical reflections are woven into the dialogue. To cite just two examples, Vatsal talks about the joys of intertextuality, his admiration of Tolstoy and how he hopes to write a character like Kino from Steinbeck’s The Pearl into one of his novels someday. His character Chalakha writes to her cousin that the ego needs unhappiness to reinforce itself for absolute joy dissolves the sense of the self, which seems to reflect this quote by Greene:
“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
The serial is set in a period when time was richer: when people took pleasure in unhurried walks, wrote long letters by hand to each other, and had endless leisurely conversations about life and art.
Just as I thought that it was a pity that no one makes such fine programs anymore, a cousin sent me a link to a relatively recent serial called Upanishad Ganga, a 52 part series which presented the wisdom of the Upanishads in one hour long fictionalised episodes.
I was not surprised to discover that the program had been broadcast by Doordarshan, which remains the gold standard for quality television content in the minds of millions of Indian viewers. Dramatizing stories from the Upanishads which are considered to be the essence of Indian philosophy in the form of short capsules is a huge challenge and the producers have been successful in their vision. The concepts, the settings, the costumes, the actors and above all, the screenplay blend together beautifully. Employing the structure of stories within a story, the series is portrayed as stage dramas presented by a group of artists who question the relevance of Sanskrit and the scriptures in present times. The episodes raise profound philosophical questions, suggest possible answers and leave the watching seeker both enriched and inspired.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Charles John Huffam Dickens, David Copperfield
David Copperfield was one of my favourite heroes as a child. He still is. The quintessential writer hero who narrates his life story. When I started writing The Reengineers, I had assumed that Chinmay would be closer to Holden Caulfield considering the similarities that they both share, such as a smothering family and existential angst fuelled by teenage depression. But when I finished writing the novel and read it objectively, I found myself unconsciously associating the grown up Chinmay who appears for a fleeting moment in the epilogue with David as he completes narrating his own story.
The Reengineers begins with fifteen year old Chinmay waiting in a library on a sweltering Summer morning, reflecting upon his plans to kill himself. It concludes (no spoilers here) with a grown up Chinmay in another time and place, looking out at his snow-covered garden from the warmth of his library, musing upon who really was the hero of his life. Looking back, I believe that there could not have been a greater inspiration, or a better epigraph for The Reengineers than the quote above from Dickens.
The first place that I visited in London was Charles Dickens’ museum at 48 Doughty St, where the author lived between 1837 and 1839 and wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and parts of Barnaby Rudge. The house was dark and cool, with parts of it having a curious lived-in feeling as though the occupants of the house had just stepped out. The dark silhouttes of the author pointing the visitors at the landings were rather spooky. It felt like trespassing as I followed the signs and the cheerful guides who urged me to step inside and take a look at Charles Dicken’s bedroom, somewhat like reading the private correspondence of the Brownings or the Hugheses.
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The museum holds the unfinished painting “Dickens’ Dream” by Robert William Buss which shows the author at his desk, surrounded by characters of his novels.
“You are in every line I have ever read.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
I stood for a long moment by his writing desk, paying a silent tribute to the author whose words are part of my earliest memories, and some of whose characters have been no less than my dearest friends.
“Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes.”
― Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
A beautifully written review by Nimi Arora, which made me look at The Reengineers from a reader’s eyes. In these insightful lines which have captured the essence of my novel, I see that Chinmay now belongs to the world. Feeling delighted, blessed, humbled and grateful.
Link to the review on her website: http://www.nimiarora.com/2016/04/the-reengineers-indu-muralidharan-book-review.html
The Reengineers: A Review by Nimi Arora
Chinmay, Anu and Sabi are three friends who have no other friends. Except for books, that is.
The three friends are misfits in the society, even among their own family members.
“We are ugly ducklings of the same feather…”
Chinmay Narayan is the protaganist of The Reengineers.
On the first page itself, he tells that he had two goals – to top the class ten board exams, and to kill himself after the exams. In the very next sentence, he clarifies that by the next afternoon, his life and plans had changed.
A sensible, oversensitive boy with the insensible thought of suicide in him. He believes he doesn’t fit in.
As readers, we now have a notion of where this story would go, and probably end. It is the ‘how’ that keeps you hooked.
Despite the knowledge and reminders of the upcoming suicide, there is a relaxed, serene feel to the book.
The author plays with words to describe common emotions with an elan.
“…I waited, aching to find a sentence that would draw me in, that would free me from my mind for at least a while.”
The protagonist talks about Chennai. I have never been to Chennai, but even though I can’t relate to the reminiscences of the city per se, what radiates through the words is a warmth and pride for the city that surpasses time and changes. A feeling that is not limited to one city. It is the expression of ‘home’.
“The feeling of home still pervades my city, despite the impersonal the impersonal flyovers that now criss-cross above the old familiar roads, the acres of shining skyscrapers that buzz with the sounds of the software cities teeming within them, and the gleaming malls that may soon outnumber the tiny Ganesha shrines on each street…”
The three kids with their innocent, yet profound philosophical discussions are smarter than the rest, yet trying to fit in. Your heart breaks for them.
It is a coming of age book. It starts at a time when Chinmay did what his parents desired. He did not know he could choose different. Not while living anyway. So he had decided to end his life.
When the book ends, the life and its’ choices have changed drastically.
The moment of epiphany when he realised that he is a ‘seeker’.
The language of The Reengineers is rather poetic, dreamlike quality at times. You feel your sense being enveloped by the emotions of the characters whose life is about to be reengineered.
“Fourteen is the age when time first starts to make its presence felt. Time took on such a variety of hues in those days that even my frozen mind sometimes reflected the colours of the world around me, and I could feel my thoughts fluttering in the humid, salty breeze.”
The feelings of teenage infatuation…
“O for those days when these tired metaphors were teenagers too, when it was still possible to recite ‘Daffodils’ and feel thrilled as you gazed at the golden laburnum in bloom. Recognising clichés is a sign of aging. Sweet as the past may be, it best remains pressed within the pages of memory, savoured for a moment or two on quiet Sunday afternoons.”
Suddenly the vibe changes. There is mystery, tension, and danger in the air.
The world they enter seems to be a parallel to the world they live in.
As Chinmay learns and discovers, a lot of life lessons are find a pace in The Reengineers.
“It is curious how the weak-minded among us are wired like that, the way we turn subdued and silent when confronting real bullies and yet stand up almost aggressively to those who are genuinely kind to us.”
For me, the one major epiphanic moment is when he realises that he’s not a misfit. He is a seeker.
So true for so many of us, who go through life dissatisfied, not realising that to want to search for more does not make them abnormal. Irrespective of what others say.
“Everything has a reason, though it cannot always be deduced for we cannot see the full picture of a life at any point in time.”
The story of The Reengineers doesn’t rush from one event to the other. It relishes the emotions.
We know from the beginning that Chinmay wants to commit suicide and that he won’t do so. The how keeps you hooked. And it is to the author’s credit that she doesn’t disappoint in the process.
The path the story takes is not predictable.
I have lent this book to my nephew now, who is studying… well, engineering. I am going to insist that the rest of the kids (who are still in school) in the family read The Reengineers too. Nothing can explain what I feel about this book better than this fact.
I feel that it is a relevant book for everyone – students, corporate employees, spiritual aspirants… actually anyone who is looking for a more contented, confident life.
Review by Nimi Arora here: http://www.nimiarora.com/2016/04/the-reengineers-indu-muralidharan-book-review.html
A poet once sang, that when
pain finally finds a voice,
at that moment, art is born
Benumbed beyond the reach of pain,
I flailed my arms against the vacuum
within the bell jar which held me, for a decade.
Words were the window through which I
Caught glimpses beyond the dark
Words that kept my heart thawed, if not warm.
On a day when the words shone
bright enough to see, I opened the window
and walked out into life. With a fifteen year old
Mind, in a decade older body. Free
At last, from the darkness that had fed upon
Many of those whose words freed me.
While my wings were tied, I had still dared
to dream of the skies. But once free, I could barely
walk and fell many times before I found my voice.
The detour from regular paths of life that I may
have walked otherwise turned the lost years into a voice
strengthened by a decade of singing in the dark.
A voice that now colours each moment gold.
Each breath a swig of light, each word a blessing.
I had assumed that words would bring
Catharsis – an uncomfortable word
But I sing, and find with unexpected joy
That it is alchemy that goes into making a voice.
(4 September, 2015)
I wrote this in a recent poetry class, where I arrived at the word ‘garden’ after cross mapping several related words. This ghazal is inspired by Voltaire’s ‘You must cultivate your garden’, words that have echoed back to me from a number of other books, besides life.
At the end of the day, man or woman,
You must cultivate your garden.
With fancy designations, in corporate suits
You must still cultivate your garden.
Step out of luxury cars and branded boots,
You must work barefoot in your garden.
Take pride in your art and its pursuits,
Yet you must also attend to your garden.
In sunshine and storm, in rain and snow,
You must faithfully tend to your garden.
The answers you seek to the meaning of life
They are all there for you, in your garden.
The music that will soothe your soul
You will find it within your garden.
At the end of the day, Indu, madwoman,
You too must cultivate your garden.
Recently I had occasion to read out a piece of writing that I admired for its usage of language. I made a long long-list of extracts from both prose and verse, followed by several shortlists before deciding at the last moment to read the opening paragraph of Lolita.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
I shared how I had stayed away from the book for many years due to the disturbing nature of its premise. As an empath, I am easily disturbed by references of cruelty to animals or children, indeed reading about any form of hurt to the safety, dignity or respect of any vulnerable being affects me. Hence I stayed away from Lolita throughout my otherwise precocious reading life in my childhood and teens. But when I finally read the book, I was filled with regret on not having read it earlier. So enthralled was I by Nabokov’s rich prose, so mesmerised by the word play and use of language that I carried the book physically with me everywhere for the next few weeks, loathe to part with it.
A scholarly essay on the writerly techniques of Nabokov suggests that he matched the voice and tone of each of his books to its theme and as Lolita is about seduction, he styled the narrative in flowery, alluring language that would captivate his readers as they turned the pages. And how splendidly he does it. With these opening lines, he had me on the very first page.