Friday, September 30, 2011

October is here…

Brother crow was strutting in the Sanctuary, while sister sparrow twittered from the lectern. Brother dog woofed sister cat out of her slumber. She scampered to the safety of the pews, her colouring a perfect camouflage against the trellised woodwork. (I am not being chauvinistic – the genders are accurately assigned. I know. I am on speaking terms with the local fauna*.) Today is the first of October and we shall soon celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi – the man who embraced all of creation in brotherhood (and sisterhood!). Perhaps it is fitting that our church was graced by the presence of his friends. Brother crow, for once, did not annoy by cawing his way through Mass. He must have realised that speech is golden only when it is timely and wise!

I love October for other reasons too. Though this is one of the hottest months in Mumbai, it still signals the countdown to the end of the year, winter and that most beloved occasion in the Christian calendar – Christmas. Christmas will be different this year because many of our own will not be there with us to share and celebrate, and yet there is a stirring in the heart, remembered joy, the anticipation of peace and healing, and the faith that it will happen.

I am reminded of a quote from my collection which goes something like this: ‘People say autumn is a sad season. I do not think so. Nature is not dying; she is merely sleeping and judging from her colours, her dreams are beautiful in anticipation of spring.’

Spring and life renewed. A life that we continue to live for those we love, because we love. Because, those we love are part of us and we are part of them. Because, through us their memory lives on.

And this brings me back to St. Francis. St. Francis lived the message of love – his heart was open to all things, all persons, all seasons, all situations. To read his life is to experience a tug of the heartstrings. And for those who walk with the animals and talk with the animals, this tug is very strong indeed!

(*I’ll let you into the secret: hubby taught me to distinguish between the birds – males are flashy and large, females are more sober and small; the cat has had more than one litter of kittens; the dog belongs to one of our priests and I’ll take his word for it that it’s a boy!)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ticking Boxes

My mental age is 40; my heart’s age is 80. That averages out at 60 which is my chronological age – thank goodness!! 60 is a lovely time of life: still young enough to push the boundaries and old enough to get away with it.

How did I come by the quoted stats? The online quiz, of course. Friends pass on the links and, being a sucker for the questionnaire, I keep clicking away till I am presented with the result. In the days BI (Before Internet), I would pounce on the various Q&As in the glossies and tick away avidly, collecting the associated alphabets (a, b, c or d) and then totaling them up to find the score. Check Your Compatibility (hubby and I were a perfect match – I knew that, but it is lovely to be told so by an ‘intelligent’ medium); What Shape Are You? (That would be telling!); Are You Antisocial? (Very – I prefer curling up with a book to attending a shindig); Are You Eating Healthy? (Of course not – I’m not yet ready to forgo ice creams and cheesecake); What Does Your Personality Rating Say About You? (Plenty!!); Do You Spend Too Much Time on the Internet? (Probably. But then, I have a lot of catching up to do.) Curious and adventurous, that’s me!

Sometimes the questionnaires come with a bonus. Fill up and post and you may get a lucky gift: I have received T-Shirts, key chains, a scarf, and sundry other items over the years.

I wonder about the people who come up with the questions and answers (some of which are impossible to identify with, even though you are urged to tick the ‘closest answer’). How accurate are the assessments? Having gone through my fair share of psychological tests (college admissions, job interviews), I often queried the reliability. I am affronted by the thought that someone can tell exactly who and what kind of person I am by merely scanning a cold and impersonal interrogation. I have been assured that there are checks and balances built in to ensure veracity and that the method is tried and tested. So, now I enjoy entering wild and wacky choices when forced to take an assessment test. One questionnaire asked if I would like to ‘kill my parents’ (!) I checked the ‘yes’ box. I made it to the interview and beyond!! (Perhaps they were really looking for someone with murderous tendencies.)

Well so much for the questionnaire. I have now to return to that recurring quiz: Are you ready to face the day? I check ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ – Yes, because the day holds out some promises; no, because there are unavoidable routine chores. Does that make me an optimistic pessimist or should that be the other way around?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On Reading – II

Do you believe in coincidences? The next title I picked up gave me a feeling of déjà vu. Once again I travelled the corridors of corruption in our country’s capital. (When I was very little, I always stated with aplomb that I was born ‘in the Capital of India’ – it sounded so much more important than, ‘I was born in New Delhi’!)

I was told by a friend, whose opinion I respect, that I would find Aravind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ very readable. And indeed it was. This was a re-acquaintance with all that is familiar; I was enticed by the first person narrative that was so authentic in language, setting and context that I found myself reading way into the night, only to pick up as early as possible the next day. A day spent in the life of India’s teeming underbelly. This book is not for those who prefer fairy tales. It is, however, an excellent read for those who are inured to reality as represented by the daily news.

A fresh scan of the bookshelf showed me the ‘heavier’ reading which was on my ‘when I have the time and inclination’ list. My head was a little clearer, so I hefted the tomes and decided that a few pages at a time should do no harm. Umberto Eco had stimulated interest in the medieval, and the historical Church has always held its own special fascination, so I picked up the intriguingly titled ‘Holy Bones, Holy Dust’ - a scholarly work on how relics shaped medieval Europe. A few pages at a time? Perish the thought. As each chapter concluded, I would venture a few pages further. Here was history unfolding: a link to the past, and a slice of my own heritage reaching right back to the time of Christ. There was also irony, suspended belief and humour – all ingredients for an excellent read. Now, why wasn’t history taught this way when we were in school? To think that I avoided this fascinating subject for so many years all because of tutoring with tunnel vision! Even when done, I turned back to chapters that held some appealing tidbit or the other, just so that I could savour them again.

More history. Elizabeth I belongs to everyone, even though she was England’s queen. Her life holds a unique fascination not least because of her parentage but also because of her authoritative reign. For me, the definitive Elizabeth is the one described by Jean Plaidy. ‘Legacy’ by Susan Kay was leant to me by a friend; it came to me strongly recommended, but I was skeptical of what it could offer. But offer it did. Fact was fleshed out by description and conversation, attitudes and actions which could only have been imagined and yet sounded unquestionably sincere. Walls can hear but not speak. Perhaps the author gleaned something from the ghosts of London’s bloodied Tower? It certainly seemed as if she had been there on the spot. Another ‘unputdownable’ (my word for it!) read.

After this, there was one more treat in store: Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Other Colours’. I had read bits and pieces in other places, and I was hooked. This was an author whose deeper acquaintance I looked forward to. And I was delighted when I eventually got the chance. The books is a collection of essays: Pamuk has written about his beloved Turkey, his youth, his family, his daughter, his thoughts and aspirations, his writing and in every piece, he has invested himself so completely that the sincerity in the writing lends it a rare integrity. There are books which once read are read; there are others which you are loath to let go. This book belongs to the latter category - a book that will be a cherished companion.

Several titles down the line, I am, as you can see, firmly back in my favourite groove – the world of the printed page. It is a world that I had to leave for a while, and I am really glad to have found my way back.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Reading - I

I am grateful to a mosquito. Bizarre but true! I was the perfect host, providing my uninvited guest with that nourishing drop of blood and, in return, it deposited in my veins the larvae and the consequent malarial fever which all of us try so hard to avoid. Mosquitoes are persistent little buggers* and despite all the precautions, there was I feverish, cross and confined to bed.

Doubters would wonder how I could possibly find the silver lining. Chills and sweats and bitter quinine are hardly the harbingers of halcyon skies. But there is one thing one can do very comfortably while lying in bed – read. I looked at all the titles on my bookshelf (some borrowed, some owned) waiting for that opportune breathing space. Was this to be it? Why not?

I picked up a light and frothy whodunit by an unfamiliar author (recommended by the library) which took care of day one. I found myself mulling over the kind of reader who could gush over such appalling triviality, a sketchy plot, oodles of amazingly wondrous settings and much too much gratuitous sex. And the blurbs on the dust jacket were ecstatic to say the least! Who was that who said, ‘Never judge a book by its cover’? I turned with alacrity to the familiar and well thumbed Agatha Christies and shed much of my irritation. On to PD James who bids fair to oust Christie from her ‘favourite’ position. James’ language and descriptive sketches – not least of the personalities that walk through her novels – are so wondrously absorbing. The reader actually meets the person and appears to live in the setting. And the prose is impeccable.

Lulled into a false sense of comfort, I became a little more adventurous and decided to sample another new author. Once again, the blurbs used adjectives in the superlative. Once again, I was left wondering about integrity in the world of publishing. Reviewers are supposed to be objective; though it is hard not to bring personal tastes to bear, surely if the work is not up to scratch it should not be foisted onto the unsuspecting reader? Peer reviews, which are a common trend, tend to put the reviewer in an invidious position and are therefore, in my very considered opinion, compromised!!

The book, which brought all this on, was nothing more than a collection of newspaper columns reporting various crimes. Since each successive report of the same crime was included, there was so much repetition, and the phrases ‘he said’, ‘he opined’, ‘he reiterated’ ‘he indicated’ concluded every sentence. Surely, the reports could have been collated and rewritten in more readable prose without negating the ‘true crime’ element? If this is what is required to write a ‘bestseller’, then all one has to do is accumulate clippings from the local newspaper and collate them into a single volume.

Perversely, I tried yet another new author. This time I laughed my way from cover to cover. No literary pretentions here. Another whodunit set in New Delhi, the narrative evoked the sights, sounds, smells and personalities of the locality so colourfully that it was impossible not to enjoy. Good ‘time pass’ to use a local phrase. I may not seek out this author (Tarquin Hall), but if another of his works comes my way, I will not turn up my nose. The review (in a magazine) was honest and reality met expectation.

I love to read and will continue to dip and delve and explore. Reading is like life – you have to take the bad with the good. Forget the first and savour the latter.

*One of the recent reference texts that came my way was titled ‘Teaching the Buggers to Write’, so I guess that’s one bit of slang that is now mainstream and I have taken the liberty of using it!

Friday, September 9, 2011

I am a Catholic

Raised in a Catholic family, I was educated in Catholic institutions and, since our Parish Church provided us with a Youth Club, I spent my leisure in a very Catholic social environment too.

We wore our Catholicism like a badge. This had its positives and its negatives. One appalling negative was the ‘holier than thou’ attitude which, thankfully, has now been shed. But the positive is what I would like to dwell on here.

If we were truly Catholic, we had to be perfect. Now, don’t get me wrong. We were not superhuman or even supernatural; it was just that we were expected to put in our very best effort and take pride in all that we did. Let me illustrate: employers and prospective spouses always wanted the ‘Convent trained’ because this meant that the best possible education had been provided. Catholic teachers, nurses, secretaries were always in demand because they could be expected to deliver and deliver quality. To say, “I am a Catholic’ was as good a certificate as any. If someone needed a repairman or wished to make a purchase from a particular vendor, you would recommend the person with the postscript, ‘Go to so and so. The work is excellent, you won’t be cheated and he(or she) is a Catholic.’ Yes, we had a very good name.

I once numbered among my acquaintances a Catholic carpenter who rejoiced in the name of Romeo. He was so much in demand that you had to plan at least a year in advance, book him for the work and issue interim reminders lest he forgot. He never did, but I was a nervous customer. His work was first class and he always followed up on the job. He made sure that the customer was fully satisfied. I still look on his work with pleasure, some 30 years on. Considering the demand, he could have overcharged, but he never did. Then there was Robert the contractor. He started out as a simple stonemason but went on to be a builder in his rural community. He was a byword and no job was too small to merit his personal supervision. I once queried a wall that he had constructed for me. His reply? ‘This is built by Robert. It will stand for a hundred years!’ I will certainly not live to see that, but a quarter century on, that wall is still robust and it stands tall against the elements.

When did we start to fall by the wayside?

The decline has been insidious. I first noticed it when some years ago I entered into a contract for renovation with a ‘Catholic’ contractor. The work seemed good. Once the final payment was made, however, things started coming apart. That was when I discovered that the fervently promised guarantees were nothing but dust in my eye (pun intended). I put it down to individual aberration.

Now, several years down the line, I have clocked many more such incidents and I am deeply saddened. It is a blot on our collective escutcheon.

It has happened and we cannot turn back the clock. But we can remedy the situation. Perhaps we need to make it known that this is ‘not Catholic’. Perhaps we need to go out and reaffirm our faith and values. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that, in the words of a much loved mentor, ‘We must shine for Christ!’