Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The truth about fiction

When novels become more than mere sheets of paper

By Aswathy Kumar

For a very long time I was never into books. Though I did read all the latest novels, I never understood what it was about a book that particularly appealed to a reader. For me they were mere pages with a few flowery words imprinted in them.
I tried my best to like books and made it a point to buy all the best sellers. Be it The Da Vinci Code, Paul Cohelo’s Alchemist or The Lord of the Rings series. But for some reason, I just couldn’t set my heart into any of it. I felt desperate! Was there something wrong with me? Was I stupid?  I knew I had to find what the problem was.
It was only much later that I realized that it was time I stopped listening to others and found out what it was that truly appealed to me. It was time to stop listening to my dad, my friends and my teachers and find out what it was, I really wanted.
I moved to Nairobi and received an opportunity to meet many interesting women from very different backgrounds and social upbringings. From Muslim women in Hijabs to struggling single working mothers, I interacted with the exploited labour class women in Nairobi and Somalian women who were victims of female circumcision. I met mothers fighting court cases for child support against abandoned fathers and women married to abusive husbands.
After listening to their hard hitting stories, I realized that it was time I came out from the fantasy world of super cops, goblins and make believe characters and delved into reality. I realized it was time I knew more about women and what they went through across the globe.
On one of my visits to the book shop, I picked out the book The Thousand Splendid Suns. It was about the lives of two Muslim women and I felt it was exactly what I was looking for. It will help me relive their suffering and help me understand their lives better. I couldn’t put it down, quite a refreshing change for someone who took months to finish a book.
In just a matter of few pages, the two main characters Mariam and Laila became a part of me. I felt for them, cried for them, prayed for them and felt the need to protect them. Every time Mariam experienced a blow from her husband, I felt it too, deep within my skin.  Every time Laila saw a hope to freedom, I hoped with her.
It’s after reading The Thousand Splendid Suns and other women interest’s fiction like Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood Of Flowers, Malika Oufkir’s La Prissonniere, Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us and many others that I realized that as a reader I wanted to read about the lives of other women in different parts of the world.
I wanted to read about characters that I could empathize with, about women I could laugh with, cry with; about women I could admire and feel for. I wanted to read not only about women I could identify with like the rebellious Saira in The Writing On My Forehead by Nafisa Haji but I also wanted to read about women who could inspire me like the courageous Malika Oufkir.
What was amazing was that most of these books were not autobiographies (except for La Prisonnere) and were mostly fiction. But even then the characters felt as real to me as anybody I met on a daily basis. The servant girl Bhima reminded me of the old maid who worked for my family in Delhi, the notorious Zeliha of The Bastard of Istanbul was almost exactly like a close friend of mine back in Kerala. Their stories were as real to me as any biography or any story that appeared on the morning newspaper. And I knew I had found what I was looking for. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In a child's world!

By Aswathy Kumar

I still remember what my professor once said. I was amongst the thirty students to have been selected for the Journalism course at a leading institute in the city. That day, I was attending one of my first sessions on ‘ Writing for print’. After an hour of lecture on ‘adopting the pyramid style in writing’ and the ‘ simple is beautiful’ concept, my professor said, “If your story is able to capture a child’s interest, then it’s a success and your work is done”.

The lecture got over and months later I was placed in one of the top media houses. However unlike my peers who took up hardcore reporting, covering issues related to crime, civic sense and health, I was placed under a special section that dealt with schools and education. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed as I too like my friends was looking forward to getting into the kurta- jhola attire and take up the ‘living on the edge’ way of life. That did not happen. My clientele were students from the age of seven to seventeen. My job was to talk to them, find out what they wanted and write stories they wished to read. The pay was good and the brand name was great. Yet I was disappointed. I felt that my job was a bit too easy and lacked the challenge that I was all this while waiting for. Little did I know then that in a couple of days, I was going to be proved completely wrong and realise that my so-called easy job for children was after all no child’s-play.

A mega inter- school quiz competition was held in the city that happened to be my first major reporting assignment. Over five thousand students from class III to XII had gathered to witness the mega show. Flying pom-poms high up in the air and yelling out slogans, “we’ll rock you” and “we are the best”, the students stormed the once-peaceful auditorium.

I felt great flaunting my press pass and being escorted to the seats reserved for the press invites. I felt at the top of the world as though I had just received my first few minutes of fame. The show began as I scribbled the course of events in my note pad. I told the organisers that I wished to speak to the winners and in just a couple of minutes they were brought in front of me. Like a parrot that had just learnt to say her first word; they shared their experience. (Probably told to them by their teacher or parents). ‘Oh it was a great opportunity to develop my inner skills’, ‘This success wouldn’t have been possible without my parents and teachers’, ‘ I can never forget this moment”, were amongst a few obvious reactions. The funny thing was that all the five winners seemed to have similar things to say. I came back to office and keyed in my story… that obviously turned out to be quite a disaster.

What went wrong I wondered? Were my questions not right? Were the students too tensed? Did my presence scare them? Or was I scared of it all ? A thousand doubts lingered in my mind. The story was rejected and I was asked to cover the finals to be held the following week. “This time don’t go there as a reporter, go there as a child”, my editor yelled out from her cabin.

What did she mean? I pondered. The following week I geared up to undertake the challenge once again. This time I knew I had to get it right. Flaunting my press card and occupying the seat for the press invites were no longer my concern. I decided to stand in line with the students as they were entering the auditorium.

“I can’t wait to see my school win, we have sent the best this time”, commented one of the kids. “ Hey we worked day and night to get our banner ready and we even practiced our cheerings and slogans”, said another. They were gripped by the excitement and didn’t seem to notice the stranger (that’s me) standing beside them making notes of what they were saying. The excitement grew on me too as I started asking them more about the preparations that went in making the evening, a memorable one. I learnt that, from practicing a victory dance to preparing their own cheering slogans, they were all set for the event. I captured their excitement, anxiety, fear, nervousness and restlessness. After a while even taking down points wasn’t necessary. I laughed with them, cheered with them and got tensed with them as the results were being announced. I had forgotton that I was working for one of the leading national dailies in the country. I forgot that I was a reporter. I was one among them.

As I went backstage to congratulate the winners, I felt their joy as they showed off their trophies. “Aditi is going to be so proud of me”, said one of the winners, referring to the cute girl in his class. “I guess this would change her mind”, he smiled sheepishly. “ I bet she would”, I said, giving him the thumps-up sign.

I went back to my office to do my story one more time, recalling each incident that happened and each moment I had captured. The story was great and went straight on page 6 (quite an achievement for a first timer). But my biggest achievement however came when a student called up to say that the article was great. Even the boy who had a crush on the cute-girl in the class rang up to say that she finally accepted his proposal and thanked me for making things easy for him.

As I sat back in my chair, basking in the joy of my big achievement, I remembered what my professor had once said, “If your story is able to capture a child’s interest, then it’s a success and your work is done”. I knew I had tasted my first dollop of success.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Agar yeh Dilli hota….

By Aswathy Kumar

When people ask me which part of the country I belong to, the first city that comes to my mind is Dilli. Okay I am a pure-bred hard core Malayali…no doubt about that. But I have always felt a strange connection to Delhi. I have lived there only seven years as compared to 18 years that I spent in my home town of Thiruvanathapuram, but still when I exit the Indira Gandhi International Airport and into the sea of aggressive taxi walas and honking cars I experience a strange feeling of welcome…that I am finally home.
A little bit of Delhi aggression is what the city of Nairobi need
Agreed… It’s not easy to love Delhi. I myself  was never a big fan of the scorching heat that always give you the feeling that you are down with a viral or the peak winters that pinch at your skin every time you step out of the house. The over-crowded DTC buses that with a vengeance refuse to stop at the swanky glittery bus-stops, the auto-rickshaws that never care two hoots about traffic rules, the street hawkers that swarm your car every time you halt at the red light and the similar looking houses that practically stick to each other are all things that you love to hate about Delhi. And working for a department where your main job is to report a stooping electricity pole, a potholed road, illegal parking and encroachments…loving Delhi was even more difficult for someone like me.
So you can imagine my excitement when my husband told me that we were moving to Nairobi. I was more than happy to bid adieu to our water-less house in Shivalik, the dingy kitchen that overlooked the wall of the next house and our sardar neighbor who happily parked one his five cars outside our gate every single day.
Life was going to be great…away from the madness, the pollution and the ever-so impatient Delhiites. Or so I thought?
Now what do I say about Nairobi? It’s picturesque, serene, great weather…a perfect blend of a quaint hill station and a metropolitan…a cosmo city surrounded by the rawness of the savannah. More than for its sheer beauty I was glad that I no longer had to run to the the Kooda wala every morning with the garbage bag or lie flat on the ground to see if water was filling up in my bore well (Yup! my landlord forgot to instill a direct-line tap and this was the only way to know when we got our share of municipal water).
In Nairobi I have a beautiful house, some good neighbors who never fail to show up at my doorstep with a plate of cupcakes or other mouth-watering African delicacies and most importantly some peace and quiet after a very long time.
But just a few days in this calm city and I realized that maybe it was not what I wanted after all. I missed Delhi, the arrogant rickshaw drivers outside Malviya Nagar, the ever-so annoying noise made by the subzi walas and mostly the streets of Delhi where everybody considered themselves to be somebody important. I missed the chaos, the noise and the madness.
Nairobi is great…The problem however for a crazy Delhiite like me starts when you leave the four walls of my apartments and into the city roads….These main roads of Nairobi, measuring just about 6mts in width are mostly single lane… Agar yeh Dilli hota (If this was Delhi), these so-called roads might have been rightly referred to as galis aka alleyways. But here…they are the main roads, the only ones leading you to you required destination.
Another striking feature of this city which is almost undigestible for a Delhiite like me is how the cars here can stand in a line for hours and hours, patiently waiting for every single person in front to find an apt parking space or finish a call on his mobile or even chat with a fellow driver passing by.
Believe me here in Nairobi you might be rushing to a hospital emergency or a job interview that might determine what your future holds for you. But if the person in front of you decides to go at 20kmh…then all you do is simply follow. You don’t honk, show no sign of aggression but simply tag along. It’s these times when I get stuck behind some laid back driver moving at snail pace on a practically empty road that I wish that I was back in Delhi.
Kyun ki Agar yeh Dilli hota…firstly there wouldn’t have been the question of waiting…coz if this was Delhi, a flyover would have sprung up at every corner…so that you don’t get stuck behind morons who don’t even know the basics of driving…or secondly…if this was Delhi and you were driving like you have all the time in this world, the person behind you would have zoomed ahead and gotten down to teach you a few essentials of driving in his unique Dilli Ishtyle,…lessons you wouldn’t even dare forget.
I recently read somewhere that the best way to solve the traffic problem in Nairobi is to legalize road rage and I couldn’t agree more…A little bit of Dilli-agresssion is exactly what this city needs to help wake up from its slumber…