In the pages of this slick and colorful book lie wonderfully captured the lives of an impressive range of characters. The people in these stories, their life worlds and above all their strikingly individual attempts at finding a way out of crucial existential dilemmas they face is the reason the nine stories in this anthology deserve to be read, appreciated and pondered about.
Firstly, each of Verma’s stories are about a sufficient detailing of the predicament in which the protagonists are situated. Secondly, each story uses the technique of conversation and dialogue quite powerfully. As a result, we meet quite a good number of people from varied socio-economic backgrounds, read about who they are, get to know of what they think and ‘hear’ a lot of their justifications for the decisions and choices that they have made in their lives. Each story is ultimately about a tension that we aim to resolve so very often in our lives that it begins to seem unresolvable and hence banal. Verma takes us back to those ‘love marriage versus arranged marriage’ and ‘learning to say No versus learning to compromise and sacrifice’ debates.
These stories do not make a villain out of any of these actors and refrain from offering easy solutions to the deeply philosophical issues they raise. Interestingly, the book offers the readers an innovative option to rewrite the endings of these stories on the author’s website in the event of their dissatisfaction with any of the endings. The episodic nature of some of these stories and the detailed biographical element in others arouse equal amount of interest and one would have to appreciate the comfort and ease with which the author addresses an impressive range of emotional entanglements. Be it the plight of a failed love affair, anxieties and insecurities of a marital discord or the complexities of living in a joint family, Verma addresses them all with a studied sensitivity.
Two stories that I specially enjoyed reading would be The Practitioner of Austerity and The Soul Mate Theorist. The former reminded me of Ritwik Ghatak‘s classic Meghe Dhake Tara. Through a glimpse into the tribulations of its protagonist Aparna’s life, the story says a thousand things about the meanings of being a daughter, a woman and a civil servant from the scheduled caste whose life is ultimately nothing but a sacrifice that hardly anyone takes a note of. In what appeared to me to be a modern-day adaptation of the Rajesh Khanna starrer Amar Prem, The Soul Mate Theorist takes us to a bar where two college friends discuss women, love and sex. From the bar we are taken to the apartment of a sex worker where we meet her son. This story is a wonderful take on the static and constraining institutions that marriage and family can actually turn out to be.
The book is written with a specific audience in mind and does falter on its ‘appeal’ quotient. In a few places, the descriptions seem trite and unnecessary. The reference to the internet pages where background research on the settings of these stories was undertaken could have been avoided. Overall, this is an interesting book- one that ideally can be read on one of those days when the mind is prone to some retrospection and is willing to pause and take stock of all the puzzles that life has had to offer!
The world of languages fascinates me. Given a chance to fulfil a wish, I would jump at mastering as many languages as possible. It is one of my earnest desires. Thankfully my career as a student of Sociology and Social Anthropology does not come in the way. For having a way with languages is considered to be an added qualification in this branch of social science. The level of fascination is so high that on meeting new people, I make all direct and indirect attempts to find out the number of languages they know. People with multilingual abilities impress me so much. I must confess of a sense of envy that crops up in the subconscious.
So far I have been a slightly decent sample of the ‘rolling stone’ variety with a little moss gathered here and there in my brain. My efforts directed towards learning languages have met a mixed fate. Some were disasters, some weren’t as disappointing.
While in college, I enrolled for a year-long part-time certificate programme in French. I passed easily. Basking in the little glories of ‘bonjour’, ‘comment ca va?’, ‘je suis desolee’ and several verb-forms, I enrolled for a diploma in the following year. Things had changed by that time. My attendance at the lectures declined because of my participation in everything else that college and hostel life had to offer.The French syllabus suddenly appeared monstrous to me as the number of lessons had shot up. I remember that my examiner at the viva voce examination asked me to describe to her ‘an imaginary stay at a hotel in France’. I would definitely not like to talk about the look that dawned on her face as soon as I shook my lips. It was clear that she tried her best to find some meaning in the nonsense that I had tried faffing up. Thanks to her strict marking that the French train I rode for those two years came to a screeching hault. It still stands at the same station and waits for a green signal from my side. It has been over ten years now and I have no idea of when and how will my ‘rendezvous’ avec ‘le langue Francais’ resume?
Urdu and Arabic
The experiences of learning French kept me mum for another few years till I finished my masters. The fieldwork for my Ph.D. research
began in 2006 where it was essential for me to learn the language that my respondents used. During the course of my interactions with the members of the Jamaat in Delhi and in Uttar Pradesh, I had to take up learning Urdu with a fresh zeal. This time I was sincere with the classes and made the best out of my year-long association with the masters. Thanks to this attentive phase as it enabled me to comfortably read, write and speak Urdu. I did a large part of my year long fieldwork at a madrasa in Azamgarh where I made many friends. One of the senior Maulanas here was extremely kind and generously helped me polish my Urdu. Satisfied with the progress I made, he gave me around a dozen intensive classes in preliminary Arabic. I could finish a primer with him in those classes. Sincere gratitude to his support and guidance. He made the subject so engaging and I was the most influenced by the method of his teaching. He continuously worked with me to dispel the notion that the language of the holy Quran is tough to understand and learn. He did make it clear by the end of my fieldwork that Arabic could be learnt as easily as any other foreign language.
Having finished fieldwork, I came back to the university. I could now fluently read Urdu newspapers and could use the literature that I had collected for my thesis. I got enrolled for a course in Arabic which was hugely helpful in advancing the basic knowledge I had received from the Maulana. I found Arabic to be quite like Sanskrit in its structure and syntax. The rules of person, tense and number are very similar in both the languages . There are similar verb forms and combinations to be memorised. Arabic surely isn’t that difficult a language to learn as it might initially sound.
One of the most fascinating aspects of university life is that it is a platform where people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds get a chance to intermingle. Numerous ideas, varieties of knowledge systems interact and are discussed and shared. Each time that I listen to my friends using their own language, the linguistic lust gets ignited in me. I quickly add to my kitty some of the interesting sounds from their conversation with a hope that there would be a day when this kitty shall be useful. 😛
Another occasion that triggers the madness is when I watch a film in any of these languages. The wish to learn Bangla was at its peak when a friend gave me a DVD of Ritwik Ghatak’s classic films. While admiring his genius in films like Meghe Dhaake Taara, Naagrik, Baari Theke Paaliye and Jukti Gappo Tarko, I noticed that I was for a brief while intent on learning the Bengali language. Thankfully I did not enrol anywhere and continued paying attention to the work I was supposed to be doing. A similar week-long Marathi phase passed not so long ago. That week was all about the Lavani and Nautanki videos on Youtube.
The latest one to have smitten me is Tamil. The craving began a couple of days back when I watched Mani Ratnam‘s Iruvar once again. Iruvar is a brilliant film that presents a fictionalised account of the friendship and the political rivalry between the cine-political personalities from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu- MG Ramachandran and KM Karunanidhi. Snippets from the Dravidian movement find interesting space in the film. It bespeaks of the power that cinema and poetry can play in electoral politics. The characters of the playwright politician (played by Prakash Raj) and that of the Tamil cine star (played by Mohanlal) are amazingly portrayed. Powerful poetry rules the film from its’ beginning till the end. This unending appreciation for Iruvar is only to slyly mention to the reader that Tamil has made it to my list too!
For this mega project of mine (clearly I haven’t done enough for it) inspiration isn’t lacking. The Indian Prime Minister Mr P V Narasimharao’s mother tongue was Telugu and he had an excellent grasp on Marathi. In addition to eight other Indian languages, he spoke English, German, Persian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Greek and Latin. Thinking of him and the others of his stature thrills me no end!
This is to end by saying that dreams and aspirations are integral life processes. They lead mostly into the domain of the impossible. They at times stand for the best and the worst in us. It can be fruitful to ponder over the dreams that recur. And yes! dreams alone do not and cannot mean much until and unless intelligently pursued!