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This blog presents critical, and often personal, analyses of literature that I recently perused. You might find here an article on the last book I finished and absolutely loved, or a savage piece ranting about all that I hated in a certain novel.

While I mostly read fiction, and within fiction the genres of historical fiction, mystery and sometimes humor, I will try not to limit myself to these and hope to add more diverse content as I read more diverse books. The latest blog post is likely to give you an idea of what I last read.

I also use this blog as a storage unit for my own amateur words and verses, whenever the inspiration strikes.

Hope you like something here, and I get to see you again!

A Portrait of Istanbul

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World

From what I have read about Elif Shafak, Istanbul has always been central to her writings, and this book will not disappoint a reader looking to get transported to this amazing city through its pages. However, the Istanbul that Shafak describes is not the richly historied city with its ancient monuments, or the urban metropolis with skyscrapers and flourishing trade. She instead chooses to focus on the Istanbul no tourist or visitor will ever see – a city of cemeteries and graveyards, where the unknown or unclaimed dead are dumped into unmarked graves, a city of brothels and sex workers, looked down upon as ‘indecent’ and threatened to death by purists who want to ‘clean up’ the city, a city of communist revolutionaries who are shot to death by government snipers, a city of multi-tasking and hard labour, a city with clashing ideas and an impermanent identity.

I think she does a much better job of describing it, so I’ll pull a quote from the book verbatim

Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong … Istanbul was a dream that existed solely in the minds of hashish eaters. In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive.

There was, for instance, an ancient Istanbul designed to be crossed on foot or by boat – the city of itinerant dervishes, fortune-tellers, matchmakers, seafarers, cotton fluffers, rug beaters and porters with wicker baskets on their backs … There was modern Istanbul – an urban sprawl overrun with cars and motorcycles whizzing back and forth, construction trucks laden with building materials for more shopping centres, skyscrapers, industrial sites … Imperial Istanbul versus plebeian Istanbul; global Istanbul versus parochial Istanbul; cosmopolitan Istanbul versus philistine Istanbul; heretical Istanbul versus pious Istanbul; macho Istanbul versus a feminine Istanbul that adopted Aphrodite – goddess of desire and also of strife – as its symbol and protector … Then there was the Istanbul of those who had left long ago, sailing to faraway ports. For them this city would always be a metropolis made of memories, myths and messianic longings, forever elusive like a lover’s face receding in the mist.

As much as this book is an indirect portrait of Istanbul, it is also the life story of a quirky, self-confident ‘Tequila’ Leila and her relationship with a family that abandoned her and a set of five friends who stood by her through thick and thin. Leila is a sex worker, lying dead in a garbage dump on the outskirts of the city. Here is where the story starts (yes, just as she is dying) , and here is where I found the premise to be extremely intriguing.

The possibility of an immediate and wholesale decimation of civilization was not half as frightening as the simple realization that our individual passing had no impact on the order of things, and life would go on just the same with or without us

Some doctors in a Canada reported that even after “death” i.e. when a human being’s pulse has stopped, they were able to detect brain activity for about 10 minutes and 38 seconds. That’s the scientific observation that Shafak builds on, hypothesizing that in those 10 minutes, the dead person’s brain runs through their entire life, bringing thoughts rapidly, memories from childhood that the person might have forgotten completely. Smells and tastes, people and places, all swim before them, just before their brain too gives up and stops functioning. This forms a promising Part 1 of the story that lends the book its unusual name. Through the 10 minutes and 38 seconds that Tequila Leila reflects on her life, we get to know the protagonist intimately. We also get a glimpse of her family and her small town through her troubled formative years, and some hints as to why she would have had to go into prostitution in the big city.

the end of childhood comes not when a child’s body changes with puberty, but when her mind is finally able to see her life through the eyes of an outsider.

Through part 1, we are also introduced to her husband, D/Ali and her five friends, Nostalgia Nalan, Sabotage Sinan, Zaynab122, Hollywood Humeyra and Jameelah. Her friends become the centerpiece of attention in parts 2 and 3, on which I will consciously not expound much and leave it to the interested reader to pick up the book and read all of it themselves.

No one should try to philosophize on the nature of humanity until they had worked in a public toilet for a couple of weeks and seen the things that people did, simply because they could.

All of Leila’s memories, and these characters’ stories take place in the backdrop of Istanbul, an ever-present but always indirectly referenced character – a city which, like a master puppeteer, influences the minds of the characters and controls the happenings of the story.

Istanbul was not a city of opportunities, but a city of scars.

Istanbul was a liquid city. Nothing was permanent here.

… clearly not suitable for hard labour – or for Istanbul, which in the end amounted to the same thing.

… the rush-hour traffic was clogging the arteries of the city, a city which now resembled an ailing giant animal, its breathing painfully slow and ragged.

The book offers considerable critique of various political viewpoints, a well as the current Turkish establishment, pointing to flaws in everything, not really calling anything right or wrong but allowing the reader to deliberate for themselves. Shafak handles complex topics like death, religion and political ideology with sensitivity and skill (At one point of time, I was wondering why I picked up this book that talks of death so much, given that the Covid situation in India and the damage it is doing around me, but in a way this book helped me come to terms with this situation). But that is not why you should read this book. Read it if you want an unconventional, darker glimpse of Istanbul and Turkey, or humanity in general.

Just because you think it’s safe here, it doesn’t mean this is the right place for you, her heart countered. Sometimes where you feel most safe is where you least belong.

Bosphorus bridge, a key setting for later parts of the story, in the background.
Image credits: https://unsplash.com/@t_ahmetler, free to use under the Unsplash license

प्रश्न

Late evening recently, I was standing on the terrace of my apartment building in Bangalore, wanting some quietude, as various conflicts raged through my mind and loads of traffic noisily whizzed past the main road. The night sky on the day, with its inky blackness punctuated by dark clouds, became my muse and resulted in what you are about to read.


ऊपर तो मैं बस इसीलिए, देख रहा था कि तारों से,
मुलाकात हो, थोड़ी बात हो, तरसते, तड़पते आँखों से।

रात के अंधेरे में यह,
बादल कई सुनहरे क्यों हैं?
विचार तो बहुत हैं मन में,
जाने विचार अधूरे क्यों हैं।

जाने मन क्यों असमंजस में,
जाने क्यों अशांत खड़ा है।
समझ के परे है आख़िर,
मन के भीतर क्या गढ़ा है।

बेचैनी का कारण ही तो,
समझने हेतु आया था मैं।
हवा का झोंका जो समझाए,
वही समझने आया था मैं।

सोचा था तारों की महफ़िल,
रहस्य पर रौशनी डालेगी।
लगा न था सुनहरी चादर,
प्रश्न नए और उछालेगी।

बिना लिए मै किसी प्रश्न का,
उत्तर दिशा बदल चुका हूँ।
समय अशुभ है, निशा अँधेरी।
यही समझ अब संभल चुका हूँ।

पहन मुखौटा सहज सरल-सा,
बिल्कुल साधारण जीवन का,
निकल चुका हूँ अब जो घर से
छुपा बोझ अपने अंदर का।

ओढ़ तो मैंने लिया मुखौटा,
लेकिन भीतर प्रश्न बड़े है।
भाव नहीं कर रहे व्यक्त पर,
मन टूटा है, कई टुकड़े हैं,
जानता नहीं वह कैसे मुड़े हैं,
मन टूटा है, कई टुकड़े हैं,
यहाँ-वहाँ हर ओर बिखरे हैं,
मन टूटा है, कई टुकड़े हैं।।


P.S. This is the result of my first presentable-enough attempt at writing a poem in Hindi. Credits to Vighnesh Hegde and Prachi Sharma for suggesting edits to the early draft. 

Cheers!

They say that the best poetry comes from two places – one, a serene and peaceful state of mind; and the other from anger and resentment. I personally feel that the latter is almost always more impactful, and in one such overpowering instance of the latter emotion, I wrote the following poem.

Thanks to Cactus Flower, the annual magazine of BITS Pilani (my undergraduate alma mater), for publishing this poem in their 2018-2019 edition.  Follow them on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cactusflowerbits/ 


Till when will you live lifeless
Like that hand, wasted like you,
Clutching that damned bottle,
The bottle that threatens to throttle,
All dreams of a determined flight,
A flight into the brightness, the light.
Instead of fresh ambition, 
and the taste of new victory,
Your smell, that breath of spirit
Or lack thereof, of decay
that's festered wide and far.

And yet there you lie,
Languishing
In self-induced unconsciousness
Wasting away something, not yours,
Those dreams weren't yours alone,
They, who harbored them,
harbored them to what end?
The dreams,
They stay in the darkness,
Trapped in a dark liquid
Inside a dark bottle 

Never to come out.

Words’ Worth

Written in a time when I was fascinated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his epic poem, The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, from which the rhyme scheme and stylistic features of this poem are drawn.

The ink as dark as night can be,
Stained the spotless parchment white;
Formed a lyrical melody
Which a worthy hand did write. 

The good-old faithful nib ran through, 
Guided by the Daedalic hand; 
Often meeting papyrus new, 
Giving form to his master's command; 

The lamp overhead, vain and proud 
Provided an everlasting glow, 
"I'll not flicker one bit" - It vowed 
"I shan't stop the poem's flow".

Thought the creaky windowpane,
I can't give light,
 'Tis a dark night,
But she was,wise and sane; 
Instead she thought, 
'Can I not, 
'Bring the air inside?' 

The chilly air, caressing his face 
Did stimulate his brain 
And clear words came out of haze; 
Like unceasing, torrentous rain. 

Words on paper expressed, 
Many-a-feelings in the mind; 
The poem was, for thoughts suppressed, 
A home they could finally find. 

A poem, a mere bunch of words 
Can wield formidable power; 
Take one through a thousand worlds; 
A thousand emotions, sweet and sour. 

The means for age-old wisdom 
Or some brand new advice; 
Through similes and metaphors 
Or simply some words nice. 

A carefree smile could hide behind 
The repeated, rhythmic refrain 
Or one might, instead find 
An expression of terrible pain. 

As the hand held up the page, 
The eyes did spare a glance 
On the finished child's face, 
No blemish stood a chance. 

An effort, not solely his, 
Whose hands wrote down the verse 
Also worthy of applause 
Were those lifeless helpers: 

The tarnished silver nib that bled 
All ink that flooded its vein; 
Or the breeze, which was let 
In by the windowpane. 

As the last full-stop was laid, 
An end to endless thought; 
Firing the imagination of others 
Is what those verses sought. 

There's life and soul in poetry, 
The converse also stands true; 
Life is a lilting harmony, 
Appreciated by a few.

Free Verse

From the comfortable confines of my dwelling,
I venture out, my first footsteps hesitating,
That initial reluctance persists as I walk
Into the unnerving, vast wilderness;
Like a ship without a sail
Stuck in choppy waters,
Like cottony clouds without hail
Wandering sans purpose

Yet as I follow the worn out forest trail
I have faith in myself, some conviction
An attempt to warm myself,
In that chilly cold
Hoping that I'll find my path 
To get to the other end.

Or else I'll carve my own way
With optimism as the lantern
In this darkness of despair
Leaving a new trail behind
Which other travellers can follow,
And feel free from fear.