Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Letter to Uncle Pai

Dearest Uncle Pai,
There was a day when I bought my first Tinkle. You became my hero then. I just wanted to tell you that you ranked better than Hrithick Roshan on my “favorite people” list, and I was such a devoted fan of yours! Well, you already know that you have a tremendous fan base out there, don’t you? Everyone from those backbenchers who read those Suppandi tales in between class periods to today’s middle aged fathers, who grew up reading your Amar Chitra Kathas love you! Oh sure, you’ve earned some great names. They call you the “Father of Indian Comics,” The “Genius” behind Tinkle….those names do sound grand. But to me, you have remained “Uncle,” Pai, the world’s best editor.

You are a very unusual person, Uncle. For one thing, you take time off to reply to nearly 100 letters a day, by hand. I wonder how you do it…you’ve been at it for the past thirty years, and things haven’t changed a bit for you. Maybe you write because you realize how important that polite hand-written rejection letter is to a kid who has sent in his first story in the hopes of becoming famous. Maybe you know that there is such a big difference between that warm letter which comes home with your encouragement when compared to just another e-mail in the inbox.

Maybe you understand how such small things can affect a child. I respect you for that. Because you know, you have made a difference, at least in my life. For that sensitive kid who visited the post-office on a late January morning just to mail her first story, and waited for three entire months before she got her first rejection letter, it made a huge difference. Your hand-written “Try try again and you will succeed,” was more powerful than a “We are very sad to inform you that your story was not accepted” ever could be. It was the most beautiful rejection letter I have ever received in my life, and I cherish it today. I wanted to frame that letter as a testimony which declared that Uncle Pai had written to me—the famous Uncle Pai, Tinkle’s editor…I remember how happy that rejection letter made me feel, you didn’t disappoint. You can covert the most difficult moments into something memorable. It’s amazing how you can do that.

Well, life has moved on, hasen’t it? Tinkle is more than 25 years old already, and it must have been an exhausting journey…and now, a lot more has changed for India’s favorite comic. For one thing, you aren’t the chief editor anymore, and India Book House has sold the rights of Tinkle through ACK Media. The Amar Chitra Kathas can now be read on mobiles with Vodaphone, and a large number of your magazines have been digitalized. I was sad when I learned that you were retiring from the post of chief editor. But I hope that the next generation of kids can receive those same warm letters, I hope you can somehow continue to keep the smiles alive on their faces. Thanks, Uncle, for everything you have done for us. Your fans are loyal to you, and I can assure you that they will always be.

I remember how frustrated I was with my name once….”Lakshmi,”---it had been a name I had shared with so many aunts and family friends. There had to be a “Lakshmi” in every crowd, in every family gathering, in every single place. My name was so standard, and so very common! I remember what you told me one day: “In the past few decades, the name Lakshmi has become so uncommon. Glad to know you have such a lovely name. May the Goddess Lakshmi always bless you with good health and wealth.” You have no idea how much those simple words affected me. They made me feel so wonderful, and today, I’m not complaining. You really do have a way with children and teenagers, Uncle, because you understand us so well.

Thanks again for being such a great friend, supporter and editor! Thanks for all the lovely words of encouragement, and thanks for simply following your heart. If you hadn’t challenged yourself to become an editor—a profession so deviant from your educational plans, we wouldn’t have seen such a great magazine today!! Chief Editor or not a chief editor, it does not matter to me…as a person, Uncle, you truly are a hero, and I shall be your starry-eyed admirer forever. You are an inspiration, and will remain so, all life through.
Yours Affectionately,

(Uncle Pai's first letter to me...Its a letter which is still very close to my heart.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Picture Perfect

When we bought a new laptop a few months ago, I decided to search for a perfect background image. I wasn’t going to settle for another African Savannah in the twilight again! This background had to be something which would be pleasant, meaningful and memorable. It had to be that perfect picture which would cheer me up as I opened my computer to type up another academic essay, weary-eyed. Searching for that photograph was like a fanciful game I liked to play—something which kept me engaged when the weather turned too hostile.

I was already bored with those dreamy award-winning snaps of sparkling beaches, tumultuous waves and calm backwaters of distant rivers. They had been used too often. I tried to experiment with funny comic strips, trying to make them all fit in together….I was picky with the Japanese Anime’ images which could suit as a background. The result was a distorted puzzle of a desktop which resembled a virtual version of a newspaper with some bothersome icons floating about like they never belonged there. My computer was the pathetic shade of bright orange and yellow of the Savannah again as I considered coming up with something better. Why not a family tree? I thought, and instantly tried to collect photographs of every relative I knew. It was a time-consuming and challenging process, gathering photographs. Trying to tailor them together into that organized family tree proved impossible as grinning uncles disappeared under the heads of my younger cousins and the aunts were buried below half-smiling friends. It was a complete mess of a collage, and my desktop became a painful chaos of smiling faces. I painted them beige in the hope that they would look more diginified and uniform, but it seemed like the collage could not be mended. True, I did play with some nice photographs, but they lost their meaning when the computer stretched them too much. The Savannah had won again, and I thought my computer would stay sickly orange forever.

The collage had discouraged me from designing a family portrait. Why bother? I thought, Just get used to the Savannah. I remembered how there were plenty of albums back home which affectionately treasured the most precious of memories…they would have made wonderful backgrounds. But they still required to be digitalized, and I was sure no one would waste their time on such things. One day, someone decided answered my prayers. I was considerably surprised when a cousin offered a digitalized version of an old 1994 family portrait out of the blue…and I knew my search had ended. There we were—the family, all together frozen in time…our smiles intact, and so very genuine! I don’t know why the photo looked perfect to me—but it seemed ideal. It was just the thing I wanted….that rare picture I had been craving for. I was delighted. Since that day, this family portrait has remained my desktop background, and I loose myself in it every single time I switch on the computer....and fond smile answers the question when someone questions inquisitively, "Is that your family up there?"

(PS: You can click to enlarge. And can you guess where I am?? :-) )

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Swallows of Kabul--A Review

“In the middle of nowhere, a whirlwind spins like a sorceress flinging out her skirts in a macabre dance; yet not even the hysteria serves to blow the dust off the calcified palm trees thrust against the sky like beseeching arms…”

Start a book like that and you can be sure that I’ll stay up reading till midnight! The Swallows of Kabul started with these words, and I soon fell in love with the author’s writing style. There is something to his poetic descriptions which make even the most boring events look like something interesting. There is a rich narrative quality to Khadra’s books—s(he) is an amazing story teller who always leaves me in a haze after reading his books. (It’s interesting to note that Yasmina Khadra is actually a pseudonym. The author is actually a retired Algerian Army general who adopted this name to avoid being recognized.) The Swallows of Kabul does not exactly have the most gripping storyline on earth but an unexpected climax more than makes up for it. The lyrical quality is just amazing. Even though the book is translated from French, it does not seem to have lost its charm, and the story is transporting in every sense of the word.

What pleased me was that this book wasn’t just a solemn complaint about what is wrong with Kabul—it was surprisingly mellow for something which is set in the backdrop of war, terror and unrest. The book tells me that there is tenderness, a residue of hope, optimism and happiness in people even under oppresive conditions...but also tells me that this can be slowly gnawed away by time. People who live here are frustrated, but still find ways to smile. Although the book echoes the pain of being bound so completely to the rules forced upon by the Taliban, it also talks how hope can live on in some form or the other. True, the book is realistic in it’s portrayal of the state of affairs in Kabul. There is the stoning of people to death, men who roam the city with rifles, and duties which are forced upon innocent people. But the book also shows me that there is also an inner world in the hearts of men—a world which can be altered by the deadly influence of the Taliban. It makes me question as to how a person can retain love, affection and ethics when the entire world is falling apart. The theme of the book revolves around the lives of four central characters, all of whom are completely different from each other. It is the story of similar destinies controlling entirely different people. Although fate is cruel to the people of Kabul, they do live their lives unassumingly. The plot itself is something uncommon, but has a tinge of excitement that you will definitely enjoy. The Swallows of Kabul is not something you will simply read and forget. It has a tremendous moral impact, making you reconsider the way you look at Afghanistan. The skill of the author in making you see the world through the eyes of his characters is something which deserves appreciation. He can easily make you realize certain subtle cultural messages that you might have otherwise ignored. You will have thousands of questions and opinions after reading it. Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun for those who are intending to read the book. I would definitely suggest it for anyone who wants to give their brains some serious exercise. The story is beautiful, especially for something taking place in a desolate, crumbling city. Khadra itself communicates this very well. "And yet it is also here, amid the hush of stony places and silence of graves, in this land of dry earth and arid hearts that our story is born, like the water lily that blooms in a stangant swamp."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel sums up Khadra’s book as follows:

“Brilliant…accomplished…[Khadra’s] portrait of the Afghan tragedy is unflinching, his lean prose and story telling skills unimpeachable…The bleak portrayal of life under the Taliban contained in this brief straightforward narrative musters the complexity and moral impact of a much bigger book.”

I guess you don’t need much more to grab this book from your nearest library!!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Book

It had been a tiresome day for me. I returned home with my head fuzzy in the effort of remembering long-forgotten formulas. It had been an experiment which had drained me of my patience, challenged my intellect and ultimately tested my practical skills. Somehow, my observations felt wrong, my calculations steadily grew to maniac proportions. I couldn’t help feeling cheated. Those awful numbers had tricked me again, and it would be painful to search for mistakes. I was naturally a bit frustrated at the end of the day. I came home and tried to snuggle myself into a blissful sleep. I waited, but sleep did not come….the memory of the disaster of an experiment was like this constant irritant to my brain…a strand of thought continued to stretch endlessly. I sighed and tried to forget.

You know how your ears grow even more sensitive when you are unable to sleep? Every little tick of the clock, those small insignificant murmurs in the distance suddenly seems to enter your audible range, don’t they? Your senses are sharper, keener and quicker when you are in that phase. As I tossed and turned, my earns picked up laughter. My mother was speaking to Grandpa on Skype, and it looked like he was chuckling at the other end too. Must be one of those standard jokes they crack once in a while, I thought, and dismissed it.
“Lakshmi, are you still awake?” I heard her call.
“Come talk to your grandfather. He has something to tell you.”

Amused, I shuffled out the room to see what the big news was. I learnt that grandpa had discovered a book I had written when I was nearly seven years old. It was an old classwork book with stories and incidents scribbled in with pencil in an unsteady hand. Some of them were figments of my childish imagination; others were vivid memories, all full of misspelled words. I saw a struggling writer within my seven year old self, someone who was prying at those words which are just beyond her grasp…someone who tried to communicate with poorly constructed sentences, hanging phrases, and incomplete passages. But that is not what attracted my attention; it was the incidents I had talked about. I had talked about rescuing a “baby mynah” from a nearby tree, about wriggling into a gutter to retrieve a pencil-top, about my grandfather’s home which I had considered an “animal home.” I had talked about how monkeys often came in to grab bananas from the kitchen, about the unfair death of a kitten, about the fun times with my friends. The stories that I had authored were worthless, but they had those wonderful “happily ever after,” endings. I laughed a lot that day. I laughed remembering all I was, all I have been and all I am right now. It was downright amusing-- remembering how such little things were so important to me back then. They seemed to have been important enough for me to write them down with so much of an effort. I had wanted to preserve them, as proof that I could think, perhaps. I also felt a very complex feeling tugging at my heart as I remembered those days. How my priorities had changed over time!! Now, all I thought about was completing my homework on time, retaining that perfect GPA, and expanding my social circle. That little book had been a remainder from the past, intruding into my present life to help me see clearly--to help me re-examine myself. I wondered why those little things were so insignificant to me now…I thought about how I had changed. I remembered how free my mind was then, always inquisitive, always ready to imagine. There had been an unwavering optimism towards everything that was my life, and a graceful acceptance of everything that my childhood had offered me. Revisiting those times, I could not remember a single incident which had been full of pain. I saw colour and freshness in every single memory; I saw happiness which was so apparent in my childhood. I also realized that today’s world looked splendid too. I stared out of the window, and felt blessed when I saw those clouds hanging about lazily in the sky. I let my mind relax, and altered my priorities. What my little book had taught me was a lesson to remember. Finding pleasure in the smallest things was important. As I attacked those calculations again, I remembered how my hydrated magnesium sulphate had so closely resembled Mentos Mouth Freshener, of how my sample of unknown chemical had crackled like something yummy being cooked on a stove, and how my carelessly recorded data actually had many smiley faces hidden in between those scary numbers….and I found myself laughing again, until my stomach ached from the effort.You see, learning to love life is a simple thing...its just a matter of searching your memory for happiness, and happiness will be yours!
Do keep smiling!

(PS: To read blog posts from my grandfather, please go here)