Booksellers, Books, and Dreams

The bearded man sits at his desk against the wall on the left, looking a bit like Uncle Alm himself, as I bring up a copy of Heidi. This will be my last book purchase in England, and I want to take away something I know I’ve loved and will continue to adore. Around him, the rooms are packed to the rafters with used books, bursting with the energy of wanting to be taken away and read; he is the placid core, typing on an ancient desktop computer, somehow making sense of the order or chaos within.

He is quite unlike the bookseller with floppy salt-and-pepper hair who stands under the portico on rainy Tuesdays, watching quietly as the odd browser fingers the spines of the used books laid out on wooden stands. His is a limited collection – but I’ve bought quite a few books from him, the most precious one being a lovely dark green-and-gold copy of Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train. The most nondescript book I bought from him, one last purchase for memory’s sake, was The Bodysurfers. All I recollect is that it has a faded cover and lies deep in one of my several to-read stacks.

***

At The Lantern, a sweet old woman volunteers at the cashier’s desk. Wizened and pushing arthritically at the buttons of a calculator, she asks me to pick a bag from the motley bundle beside her. A younger woman in glasses steps up and helps us pack the books. This is our last visit to the shop, and I have searched painstakingly for the authors I rarely saw on bookshop shelves or in online stores in India. I grin for a while as we walk back, thinking of the Hart Crane, Bryher, and Rumer Godden in my bag. I look forward to the Europe trip we are planning and dream of Paris.

***

I have just finished The Paris Wife, a reasonable page-turner written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Read it if you like the nostalgia of names and places – if you want to be reminded of Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, of the settings and characters of The Sun Also Rises, of grey evenings and endless absinthe drunk in the cafés of Paris. Read it if you want a piece of Hadley, a bit of Hemingway, and the heady delights of jazz and indulgence in post-war Paris. Break your heart over the complicated relationships and the unfaithfulness that hangs heavy over the café tables and in Riviera villas. Don’t expect much in the form of words that seep into your head and emerge deliciously at the least expected moments; for that, you have Fitzgerald. (Incidentally, it is one year since I visited Fitzgerald’s grave in Rockville.)

I have gobbled up books about 1920s Paris over the last year, and have at least three others lined up. The one I’m most looking forward to is Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, for reasons I’m unaware of. I want to pace these Paris books well, though, and I’m taking a break with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a satire on Fleet Street and the English aristocracy. And it is this that has reminded me of booksellers and churchyards in England. Five years on, I look back longingly at the walks down damp, narrow paths, leaves crunching underfoot. I miss the garden gnomes and the painted doors that remained mysteriously shut all the time. As the sun blazes down on Chennai’s sleepy streets where not a breath of wind stirs, I want to be spirited to the Downs, or to the exit of Heathrow or Dulles Airport, stepping into the open for the first time to be confronted by a sharp wind that pierces through my thin coat – utterly unsuited to the season – and chills me to the bone.

Then, when I’m there, I’ll dream of the tropics.

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On Myanmar/Burma

A year and a half ago, I met a man from Myanmar, or Burma, as it was called then. V. was one of several students who had fled the country after the uprising of 1988, when a demonstration against military rule was brutally quashed. He told me stories of being watched every time he went back, of having to be on his guard even as he walked through his town. He would like to return for good at some point, he said. However, the way things were, he didn’t even go for a visit very often. V. was buried under the weight of his memories, speaking wistfully of afternoons by the river, spicy food shared with Indian neighbours, and the gaiety of the Water Festival. He was also deeply affected by the months he spent in prison after the revolt, fearful and uncertain of his fate. When he finally had the chance, he moved to a new country and rebuilt his life.

V. now celebrates Buddhist festivals in a foreign setting. He misses the summer breeze of his hometown and the gentle rustle of leaves in the courtyard. He takes solace in the close-knit expatriate Burmese community; festivals at the local monastery are an important part of his life, as are visits from family. He struggles to understand his daughter’s career choices and her desire to move to a different town for university. He lives two lives: one in his adopted country, the other in his head.

Buddha's Gold. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

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Around the time that V. told me his story, I chanced upon two books set in Burma: Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles (a graphic novel) and Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma. Both of them gave me Western perspectives of the country, one from that of the spouse of an aid worker, the other from a journalist’s. Larkin wanted to trace Orwell’s five years in Burma, and to see if his days there actually sowed the seeds for 1984 in his head. She met people who read the book and discussed it furtively, believing that he had indeed been prophetic.

However, neither Delisle nor Larkin managed to get too far in understanding the problems that plagued the country. While Delisle was evidently not trying to go beyond superficial observations, Larkin’s attempts were limited by the difficulty of eliciting information from her interviewees, an effect of the constant supervision she was under. G. was in Myanmar for a couple of weeks this year, and told me that the few people he had a chance to speak to were courteous, but a little inflexible, unwilling to make small changes to set patterns. This closed-off attitude could be a result of years of conditioning and fear: for people weary of seeing their families disintegrate and disperse, is silence one of the natural choices?

Downtown Yangon where you can see the confluence of Buddhist and the colonial architecture

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Myanmar’s political troubles are far from over, as the Rohingya refugee crisis shows. V. suggests that the current government isn’t exactly independent, and that the military still exerts an enormous amount of influence. However, despite the criticism and the sanctions, Yangon is vibrant and thriving. As G. puts it, the city is a “testimony to the fact that the foundations of progress are civilizational rather than religious or political”. Does the history of Burma, viewed in terms of civilizational progress, contain solutions to the challenges it has to contend with?

This brings me to the book on my nightstand: The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. The book describes Burma’s history from 1885, seeking to understand the present situation through past events, including British occupation, Chinese invasion, and the onset of military rule. I tried reading it when I first bought it a few years ago, but I just wasn’t ready for it. I put it aside for a more propitious time, which has now hopefully arrived. (As some of you might know, I strongly believe that some books wait patiently to be read – they know when you are ready for them and quietly sneak into your life – and I try to use this theory to justify my hoarding tendencies.)

I have started the book again, this time with the hope of finishing it. I am counting on V.’s account and G.’s visit to enrich my experience. Accounts from friends and family from two generations ago, when Burma was home to a large Tamil population, add to the mix. These include stories about people fleeing the country during the Second World War and walking for days on end to reach India, some dying on the way. I am learning to appreciate the scars that people carry, but do not display. I am reminding myself that studying history – anyone’s history – can go a long way in bringing some much-needed understanding into our lives.

 

The Suburbs

I take myself off to the library earlier than I wanted to because the Met department has issued a thunderstorm warning, and it usually doesn’t go wrong. It isn’t that the four o’clock sunshine will be mild and forgiving, but it does feel more benevolent than the heat at half-past two. As expected, when I step out from the air-conditioned confines of the apartment, I walk into a wall of heat. However, a rustling, redeeming breeze rushes in to mediate, and I make peace with the weather while I turn the neat corners and stop at traffic signals. It is a blessing not to have to compete with motorbikes and scooters for room on the pavement.

I am determined to deposit my books at the counter of my local library and return home without a look at the shelves. My bedside table already has two delectably thick, hardbound books to be read: Elizabeth Pisani’s ‘Indonesia, Etc.’ and Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Painted Drum’. The first one is supposed to give me a glimpse of the country I last visited and adored, while educating me on its history and politics. I picked up the second to indulge my fascination for Native American culture and traditions, of which I am shamefully ignorant. We never learnt Native American history at school; in fact, the gist of what we were taught is that Columbus sailed to the continent and mistook the inhabitants for Asian Indians. We were never taught much about the brutal colonisation of other territories – which, I would think, was important for a country that had itself been victim to imperialist ambitions.

***

This street looks like a scene right out of Revolutionary Road. Neat houses with trim gardens line the road, and it isn’t difficult to take a trip back to the USA of the 1950s and imagine suburban fancies creating themselves, while also imploding. On a still afternoon like this, I can see a housewife doing the laundry and cooking for her family, having reached a stage beyond the anguish that stems from the rejection of carefully nurtured dreams. She walks around in her printed dress, ennui enveloping her features, movements mechanical and strained. She could be Richard Yates’ heroine, or Sinclair Lewis’. However, this is a theme that fascinates more than oppresses me – probably the reason why I am setting out on an American literature spree again.

Blame it, then, on the flag-draped porch banisters and the incongruous fire station in the middle of a very suburban street, where firemen practise their routines in a languid manner. I wend through the shelves in the library to the section marked ‘S’ and pick up The Winter of Our Discontent. I keep waiting for the right moment to go back to John Steinbeck, and today this model street of low houses and parked cars has inspired me to do so. This isn’t schadenfreude, but an attempt to understand that mysterious phenomenon of middle age that is slowly going to creep up on me, on the people I grew up with, when the vivacious dreams of adolescence will be laughed at and stowed away, only to be taken out stealthily on rare occasions. I don’t even know if it is fair to associate suburban America with the purported security and stability that middle age and twenty years of work bring. However, I sense that it is only the object of ambition that must have changed – become bigger, costlier, and shinier than it used to be – and that the story of the pursuit for it remains the same. Twentieth century, twenty-first century, it really doesn’t matter.

In the Capital

Washington, DC, is grey. The majestic buildings are grey, as are the statues. The sky is leaden and the ponds are dark. And right in time, I see the trees and the tulips: a burst of colour in the neatly planted formations in front of various government offices. The trees are a rich green, the severe grey starkness of Grecian pillars the perfect foil to their summery beauty. Washington, DC, will grow on me.

The US Capitol is unimpressive, covered up that the dome is with scaffolding. Tourists linger in small groups, hoping for something to see, and finally fixing on a “March for Marriage” – essentially, a call to preserve male-female unions. Though there are no obvious anti-gay placards, a little later we stumble upon an unsightly stall denouncing homosexuality. It feels like stepping from one conservative country into another. I think of Brighton, the absolute antithesis to Washington, in its embrace of homosexuality, nude beaches, and naked bike rides.

But we will have nothing to do with an anti-gay demonstration. We head back to our primary attraction, the Library of Congress. G. has been here earlier and cannot stop singing its praises. We walk to the reception desk where a kindly old man tells me that I have to be a Member of Congress to borrow books (hopes dashed to dust), but that I can get a reading card instead. We walk through desolate, labyrinthine tunnels, the constant metallic hiss of the pipes overhead echoing eerily. If the lights went out, I assure you my imagination would direct itself to MR James and not leave me in peace.

We visit the Business & Science section, a large, high-ceilinged, well-lit room with Grecian panels high up on the walls. This obsession with all designs Greek is something I am yet to understand. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the days of Aristotle and Socrates, a tribute to the early years of debate and democracy (strictly according to a Western worldview)? There is something cold and unfeeling about the atmosphere of this library that I cannot shrug off: a heavy sense of history, a bit of grand responsibility. This is probably true of the entire capital region (or country?), because everywhere you go, you see the US flag hoisted – in gardens, on top of buildings, in front of hotels.

***

The train emerges from the tunnel into Arlington Cemetery, passing by low grassy undulations, just like the train to Brighton snaking out of the South Downs into London Road station. I keep thinking back to England when I see the names of places in Virginia: Suffolk, Middlesex, Cumberland, York. Just like the London tube where people barely make eye contact with one another, the trains in Virginia are filled with sombre people, their eyes fixed on a vague distant point, hoping for quick release from the darkness through which they are being jolted.

The silence is brief. Once out in the open, I am back in that famed capitalist America, home to the vast departmental stores that are a far cry from the humble dry goods stores that they must have once started out as. However, even in the midst of this wealth and bustle, does the ennui that Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton described so poignantly ever creep in? Would you ever tire of endless parties or sleepy roads?

Understanding Hinduism in Bali – II

(Like in the last part, I would like to mention that all my knowledge of Hinduism in Bali is extracted from conversations with our travel guide, W. Please do let me know if you have heard different versions, or know something to be incorrect.)

Part I here

The Balinese countryside is richly green. We drove to Ubud, Tanah Lot, Bedugul, and Uluwatu – everywhere we went, our eyes were treated to the sight of gently waving green stalks in large fields, sometimes set off by threatening grey clouds. We stopped for lunch at various village restaurants, one of them perched on the side of a cliff, gazing at lush terraced slopes while we scoured for vegetarian options on our menu cards.

Terrace
The terraced fields of Ubud

On one of these drives through the countryside, W fiddled with the radio knobs till a Hindi movie song came on air. “Do you like listening (to) music?” He told us of the seventies when he started watching Hindi mythological serials and movies dubbed in Bahasa, naming the few actors he remembered: Shashi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, and Hema Malini. While Hinduism rooted itself in Bali some centuries ago, it is clear that a new soft power has made its way to the island over the last few decades.

Arriving one sunny morning in Uluwatu, we found a ceremony in progress. Groups of men and women wearing traditional white shirts over their sarongs watched while a priest seated on a pedestal performed the ceremony. The shrine was decorated with bamboo trimmings, and baskets filled with offerings were lined up in front of the deity. W told us that the worshippers were probably shopkeepers from the village nearby propitiating Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. The chant that filled the air, with cymbals and a large drum keeping time, was ancient Javanese. W explained that the Hindus arrived in Bali in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mostly from East Java, having fled Muslim persecution. This would probably explain why the Balinese language has a lot in common with Javanese.

Uluwatu
Ceremony at Uluwatu

The Hindus of Bali eat beef. White cows, however, are considered sacred and not slaughtered for food. These exceptions are not limited to meat, but can extend, for example, to the exclusion of bananas or pumpkins by some clans. Most exemptions are acts of gratitude: at some point, the ancestors of particular clans are believed to have been saved by white cows or sheltered by banana trees, owing to which they are preserved to this day.

As we drove back to Denpasar, a chant came on air. “This is the Gayatri mantra,” said W. “We say it regularly at home, when we worship at our shrine three times a day.” This wasn’t the Gayatri mantra as my husband and I knew it. It sounded very different, and we couldn’t quite make out the words. However, some Sanskrit chants had evidently survived on this faraway island and were being kept alive by a people who had struggled for the right to protect their practices.

While we in India like to pride ourselves on our diversity, it is easy to forget that other places are not quite homogeneous. Indonesia, which many of us might consider a small, uniform country, has 400 dialects of its own. The Latin script has conveniently stepped in to unify the country, with all dialects now being interpreted in a manner that permits any of us foreigners with a knowledge of English to read them. This could be a comfortable example to quote in the perennial Hindi vs English debates that a lot of linguistic arguments in India (sometimes entirely leaving out Dravidian languages, as in the latest Atish Taseer piece) lead to. I would be interested to learn what effect this has on the local scripts – do they survive, or are they relegated to oblivion?

I apologise for referring to India so often in a post that is supposed to be about Bali. I can’t really help it, though, especially when I realise that the problems W talks of are exactly the ones that we in India face and, often, scoff at as figments of our hyperactive imagination. Whether these problems exist everywhere or are products of everyone’s imagination, I’ll leave you to judge at the end of the next post, which will also conclude this series on Hinduism in Bali.

Cousins
Motif from the Ramayana

Ghost Stories in Ramnagar

The Kosi in Ramnagar
The Kosi in Ramnagar

The hills of the Uttarakhand Terai glow in the light of the November sun, slopes and peaks radiating a fuzzy softness in the morning, perfectly set off by the golden-tipped ripples of the Kosi. People troop out of the resort in small groups, running or walking or meditating to the gush of the river. They ride to the Corbett Tiger Reserve in open jeeps and return all excited at the sight of “fresh pug-marks”, believing that they would have spotted a tiger if only they had held their breath a moment longer or the group in the next jeep hadn’t been so noisy. What can disturb the peace and detached bliss of this still, cold morning, when winter is just beginning to gird its loins for a full-fledged attack on the Himalayan foothills?

A stench fills the air. A dead vulture, black feathers unruffled on a stiff body, lies on the river-bank. The hills have their ghosts.

***

Ramnagar seems to be the perfect name for a village in the legends. It is the kind of name that rolls off the tongue easily and lends itself to fictional settings for both gory wars and everyday stories of the Malgudi kind. But I’m interested only in that which cannot be seen or understood.

I ask a security guard if he knows any ghost stories. Against the surreal backdrop of games of table-tennis and badminton, he nonchalantly tells me that two spirits hover near the cabin where he keeps guard every night. “They lit a fire inside the cabin one night to keep themselves warm,” he says. “When the door was opened the next morning, they were found dead of suffocation.” How does he know they haunt the area? “I hear voices sometimes. Many people have. We also see them occasionally, walking around like ordinary people.” Is he afraid? “No. Why should I be afraid? You can be brave, or you can get frightened of your own shadow.” He is a practical man.

“You should not go to the river at night,” he warns me. “You never know what happens upstream: there might be a burning ghaat there, and a charred body might just come floating down.” Be careful of physical remains. There might be a subtext to his warning.

Twenty of us sit around a bonfire at night, telling stories of horror and possession. Higher up in the hills, some women are believed to be possessed by the spirit of a goddess when they get violent and begin throwing things around; they are respected and worshipped, but a pundit is then summoned to chase the otherworldly being away. Something doesn’t add up here.

One of our company tells the story of Bhangarh, a village in Rajasthan, which lies in ghost-like ruin, much like Pompeii. It stands still as if frozen in time, and no new settlement has sprung up at its location. Nobody is allowed to enter the ruins between dusk and dawn, according to Government orders. What kind of curse does it carry that it requires an elected Government to intervene and impose strict orders on its borders? (Let us not talk of the Sariska Tiger Reserve now – don’t put a dampener on romantic legends set in sprawling forts.)

***

My appetite for ghost stories isn’t satiated yet. If you’ve read MR James, Ambrose Bierce and Ruskin Bond growing up, it never will be, and you will want to turn sixty quickly so you can retire and settle in the Himalayas, with a garden full of wildflowers and a snow-capped mountain peak framed in your window. So I ask one of the kitchen staff for ghost stories. He is a little hesitant in the beginning, but warms up to the subject after just a little coaxing.

“There is a ghost that sometimes sits on people’s necks when they are lying down,” he says. “A man could be fully conscious and see things clearly, but when the ghost attacks, he is paralysed. He feels a weight on his neck and shoulders and cannot move, much as he may try.” A case of sleep paralysis, perhaps? I ask how often it happens, and to whom. “We believe that it happens generally to those with weak planetary positions in their horoscopes.” He talks further of childless women who are believed to be possessed and need to be counselled by a pundit, following which they conceive immediately.

We then segue from ghosts to gods. “We tend to believe that our gods are also spirits.” Devbhoomi – the land of the gods, where they wander free. The lines between the real and the imaginary blur effortlessly, as is obvious from the crisp reply another man at the resort gives me when I ask him what he thinks of ghosts: “What are ghosts? You can’t see the wind, but it still blows and makes the leaves sway.”

Who can tell what lurks in the dark, or even in the ribbons of sunshine that filter through the branches of tall trees in the foothills on calm, delightful mornings? The forests are full – and we do not know the names or forms of all that “lives” inside.

Understanding Hinduism in Bali – I

[These posts are based on my conversations over three days with my Balinese tour guide, W – when I quote him, I am not endorsing his views. Please excuse any factual inaccuracies and feel free to share your experiences or opinions in the comments section. I am happy to be corrected if I’ve understood something wrong.]

Ubud temple

For some reason, I have come to think of the Hindu way of life as something unique to India – or the subcontinent, considering Nepal is right next door. Of course, I’ve known for years that large swathes of Southeast Asia were once Hindu – and I’m not thanking history textbooks from school for this knowledge, because most of India’s own colonial and exploratory past was in those days relegated to footnotes or minuscule paragraphs tucked away among detailed chapters on, mostly, the Guptas, the Mughals and the independence struggle. My knowledge of the practice of Hinduism outside India is pretty much negligible, and visiting Bali was quite an eye-opener in that sense. I had to learn to share Brahma and Saraswati, Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Parvati with a brand new country: I almost had to get to know these deities afresh, recognise the new physical forms that the Cholas or Raja Ravi Varma did not have much to do with.

That religion is very important to the Balinese is extremely evident at every step. There were two things common to most Hindu establishments we came across: one, offerings in little leaf trays left out at the doorstep, and two, the almost maniacal adoration for the Mahabharata dubbed in Bahasa on TV. Our Hindu tour guide, W, was most helpful while explaining things to us, quite amused at our eagerness to understand a culture which was so close to our own and still so mysterious.

“We have a ceremony for everything,” he said, as we drove past a few temples all decked up, yellow flags fluttering in the wind. Indeed, so they did, for most of the temples we passed seemed to be preparing for a ceremony or cleaning up after one. Every family home has a temple within its walls, explained W, pointing at the tiered structures rising out of the compounds. The Balinese obviously take their prayer very seriously, rising at dawn and allotting enough time throughout the day to their rituals. However, what impressed us most was that their faith wasn’t restricted to spending time in their sacred shrines.

Ceremony

Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and gentle curiosity; Bali wasn’t opulent in the material sense, but there was enough happiness to share. When we remarked on this, our guide attributed it to the strong belief in karma and rebirth. This faith is so rigid among the Balinese that when a baby is born, the family visits an astrologer (of the tantric kind, as I understand) to find out who it was in its previous birth. They are also known to bury the placenta to ensure that the baby is reborn in the same family. I have never known what to make of rebirth, explaining it to myself in simple terms as the transfer of energy from one body to another, and I’m not quite sure how the Balinese explain the idea – but as a means to keep people on the straight and narrow, it seems to be a very useful concept. The Balinese greeting, Om Swasti Astu, translates to “May God bless you always”, perhaps in this birth and the next?

Procession

W was rather conservative about religion and evidently held it very close to his heart. When I asked him what he thought of the influx of tourists in Bali, he pointed out that though it was useful for the economy and for creating jobs, it affected local culture. “Our youngsters are getting increasingly influenced by Western culture,” – a common refrain in India as well – “and the focus on tourism is also affecting local architecture. The new buildings are boring and don’t use traditional elements much.”

The Hindus of Bali have suffered much, says W. As the years continue to go by, these memories remain fresh in their minds, and perhaps make them cling to their faith more vigorously than ever before. What is quite astonishing is that the Indonesian form of Hinduism seems to have changed little since it first arrived on the islands, and maybe owes its continued purity as much to external factors as to the determination of its people to keep it intact.