Stories that Want to be Told

Everything you can imagine is real. – Pablo Picasso

 I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘growing up’, about the books that have shaped me into the person I’ve become, the person I continue to evolve into. A few months ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s much awaited The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book which was feted with much ado and reviewed graciously all around. It failed, somehow, to move me. Perhaps this was because, as I wrote earlier, I had extremely high expectations of one of my favourite writers, expectations that even Gaiman could not fulfil.

 Or perhaps it was because I had already read a book that had portrayed the transition from child to adult in a manner that very, very few could possibly hope to achieve.

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is for me what The Shadow of the Wind was to Daniel in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s magnificent novel (of the same name). It is the secret book that found me in the midst of a hundred fellows, a thousand fellows. It was drawn from the shelf with a vague curiosity, a sort of purposeless browsing that I no longer have the time or the inclination to indulge. It found me, I think, in some strange, personal way, and it affected me profoundly, continues to affect me, upon every reading.

 The story begins, as all good stories ‘should’, ‘Once upon a time’. A young boy named David loses his mother to a wasting illness, in spite of his best efforts via counting routines and habits to keep her in good health. His father remarries and David must welcome both Rose and her new baby, Georgie, into the family. To make matters worse, England teeters on the brink of World War II, and David’s father is forced to move the family to Rose’s old family home on the outskirts of London, far from all the boy has known. Unable to cope with his grief and overwhelming resentment of Rose and Georgie, David turns to the thing he and his mother both loved: fairy tales. The books containing these stories have begun to whisper to David, and in his dreams he sees a strange, capering figure, with a face like a half-moon and a crooked hat who says with a cryptic, twisted smile ‘All hail the new king.’

 The story takes the track well-worn by generations of child-explorers: like Alice, David disappears into a strange wonderland, a pastiche of the fairytales he has grown up hearing and reading, lured thither by his dead mother’s voice. This world is no happily-ever-after vale, though, the shadows of war, disease and nightmare lying heavy upon it. David knows he cannot stay here, but the only way to get back is to make his way to the Old King, who rules weakly from his castle in the east. The King possesses a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things, which may be able to get David home. David must, of course, pass through a set of trials to get there and meets friends and enemies of varying abilities and dangers on his way, including a helpful Woodsman, communist dwarves, a murderous huntress, a beautiful, wandering knight in search of a Dark Tower and the sinister and all-powerful Crooked Man.

 In my short lifetime of reading, I have yet to come across a book that tells the story of discarding childhood in as beautiful, simple or affecting a manner. Connolly pieces together the golden threads of childhood fairytale favourites with the half-remembered and still-dreaded nightmares of things under the bed, waiting in the shadows, half-glimpsed in the faces of strangers. The sheen he gives to old tales is startling, whether it be his rewriting of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, each more macabre and Carter-esque than the sanitized versions most of us postcolonial brats are exposed to. In addition to this, when he enters this new world, David brings with him his own nightmares and the filth of his own world, its wars and troubles—he must face them down in this story, or not go back at all.

 I think, I think that Connolly and Gaiman are trying to tell the same story in their own ways. How do you deal with grief, loneliness and confusion as a child, how do you make that journey into adulthood and still retain a veneer of innocence and the ability to wonder? If your tale is just a plot woven by the Crooked Man for his own ends, if reality can be shredded away by the vicious talons of varmints, where is the stability, the meaning, the happily-ever-afters and heroics we dreamed of in stories of yore?

 Gaiman’s prose, while elegant as ever, did not move me, didn’t convince me in the same manner Connolly’s did. Perhaps that was because I came to Connolly with an open mind, and read him at a time when I myself was ‘growing up’. I could identify with David more than with the unnamed narrator in Ocean, I could see echoes of the stories I knew and loved in his own adventures. Gaiman attempts to create a new mythology for his world; Connolly rests his hero’s adventures on the backs of tried and tested figures and plots, and somehow makes them seem new.

 Perhaps that, really, is where the magic lies. As I grow older, I find myself turning more and more to the kind of stories my mother tried to wean me off of. ‘You can’t always read these fantasy and fairy tale things,’ she told me on my fifth re-read of The Lord of the Rings. ‘You have to read other books some day.’

 And yet, despite my best efforts, I find myself coming back to these, to the stories where a plucky hero passes through great and otherworldly trials to find himself rest and reward at the close. These stories remind that though ‘life is filled with great grief’ there is also ‘great happiness’. That though there are Beasts and Crooked Men in their underground tunnels, waiting to foster the evil that dwells inside you, with the right attitude you can battle them away, find allies in unlikely places and reserves of courage where you never thought to look before.

 I think Connolly manages to do what few writers apart from Lewis Carroll have done: take a child’s darkest dreams and craft with them a road to adulthood. David changes in the course of the story, as do his readers. And yet …

 ‘I came back,’ said David, and the Woodsman smiled.

 ‘Most people do, in the end.’

 Truer and more encouraging words were never spoken.

Strapping on that Prada

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Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in the movie.

Two posts in one day! This is a record for me.

What brought it on? Simple, I read ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (by Lauren Weisberger) and realized I am not doing anything with my life. While the writing could have been improved, and the book’s narrative zipped kind of confusingly between timelines, I really enjoyed my time with it. It was easy to imagine myself in Andrea Sachs’ shoes, not only because I’m also 23 and at a first job, but also because I too often pause and wonder if ‘four years of deconstructing and diagramming novels, plays, short stories’ were for, well, this.

Also, I totally want to write for the New Yorker some day. And I know it’s a long, long climb.

But what the book has really done for me is to sort of push me into realizing that I have to work really, really hard to get anywhere, and especially to get to the pinnacle and definition of success I harbour in my head. I’ve been feeling rather uninspired these past few weeks, and not being at my bright and sparky best. It’s made me feel guilty, which is good, since guilt indicates that I care about being brilliant and am not content with just churning out what’s expected of me. I don’t want to just be good at what I do, I want to be exceptional.

I understand that everyone goes through periods of disillusionment and withdrawal at their jobs, especially the first one. But how long can that phase last? And, more importantly, isn’t it up to me how long it goes on? Yes, I may not have what it takes to be the best in this field (and I don’t think I can possibly be, yet), but shouldn’t I try anyway?

I watched the wonderful ‘Prada’ movie for the second time a couple of months ago, and saw so much more of myself in it than I had at the age of 19 (which is, I think, the age at which I first watched it). Of course, that’s thanks to the new angle that my freshly minted professional life brought to bear upon it. I saw people and situations from my own life in it, as usual. Most self-centred literature enthusiasts tend to do that, don’t they?

Though I must hasten to add here that my own boss is an amazing woman whom I completely adore. That was one aspect of Andrea’s life I do not and do not wish to have familiarity with.

Strange that a book I picked up for ‘light reading’ should have this sort of introspective effect on me. I think a few months of blogging have sort of changed my outlook on books though—I’m constantly thinking of what I can say about them, what makes a book and its characters, its story, important and relevant to me. In ‘Prada’, I found a companion for metro rides and lunch hours, a break from the depressing and nightmare inducing world of Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’. I also found a person who reminded me of what I need to do.

I need to get somewhere, and I need to bloody well work hard to make sure that happens. Thanks for the reminder, Andrea Sachs!

MUNning, and other dress-up games

A friend of mine was in town over the weekend, and among the topics that came up in our profound discussions was that of Model United Nations conventions. This isn’t/wasn’t strange, given that much of our early interaction came about as a result of various (make that two) MUNs. He has a lot more experience in this field than I do, and hence was able to contribute what I take to be more worthy points to the discussion. All I did was to start the ball rolling with a casual ‘So how helpful do you think MUNning has been/will be for your career?’

(In the course of this post I will refer to the act of participating in a Model UN convention, at a college or school level, as MUNning. Also, I should probably mention that the friend in question is currently doing a degree in Global Affairs, and recently did a three-month internship at the UN in New York.)

He thought for a bit, and said that no, there was no ‘direct’ and easily ascertainable benefit to his professional life. However, the practice of research he’d developed, the ability to read and retain information from newspapers and online archives- that was beyond priceless for a budding wannabe diplomat. What MUNning had cultivated in him, he said, was the ability to care about people in other countries, to feel responsible for one’s own decisions and the impact his interaction with his fellow ‘delegates’ had on countless lives. ‘I loved the feeling of representing someone’ he said, ‘and feeling responsible for so many people’. That experience, as staged as it might have been, has definitely had some kind of weight on his decision to work not just ‘in’ his country, but ‘for’ it.

After that, the conversation veered off this earnest course, chiefly because I couldn’t keep a straight face at what I thought was a pompous declaration. He was already, I thought, beginning to sound the part of  a high-profile UN employee, a la Shashi Tharoor.

Wording quibbles aside, I do not doubt the sincerity of my friend’s statement. I haven’t been a part of many MUNs myself (as a delegate), but I have seen plenty of MUNners. For most, the four day convention seems a fun excuse to dress up in their corporate, campus-placement best, spend a few hours speaking about themselves in third person and then, of course, have the fun backslapping and catching-up session after committees and councils disperse for the day. Many of those who do best in the council room are students who double as debaters for the remaining 3/4ths of the academic year, who are familiar with how best to turn a phrase, how to distract the watching judge (in this case, the Chair) from his/her weakenesses by strategically attacking an opposing delegate’s language. I have seen three-hour-long sessions where two or three principal delegates wrangled over the ‘definition’ of a particular word in the stated agenda. Yes, it is very important that everyone be absolutely clear on what exactly a term like ‘terrorism’ means, but when you have only two days, comprised of two six-hour sessions each, can you really afford to spend one fourth of that time defining something?

Then again, this might just be how exactly the ‘real’ UN works. Which, my less-UN-more-subaltern-supportive friends would argue, explains so much.

But coming back to my larger point, that of whether this makes any constructive ‘difference’ to the participant. There are always going to be some people who have entered the MUN (or similar, ‘model’ game, such as Moot Courts or Model Cabinet sessions) for nothing but the superficial glamour such activities hold in some imaginations. There is a thrill to dressing up, to feeling important and play-acting as someone else. That’s why the students in theatre clubs in college are usually considered ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying this aspect of a MUN, and I confess I have felt a thrill of excitement myself at the prospect of wearing high heels and strutting around the college corridors in a black, ‘corporate looking’  skirt.

I do, however, believe that one can take something more permanent than a photo-op from the experience. My friend is right- MUNs do cultivate in their more sincere participants a feeling of responsibility, an idea of the connectedness of the world and how one’s actions in a council room can affect millions of lives. These conventions ‘dress up’ the everyday, ordinary practice of reading the newspaper or tuning into international events, and make them desirable, things that lead to a better chance of victory in what is, at the end of the day, a competition for ‘best delegate’.  For kids who enter that contest at least three times a year (and in DU, certainly more often, with every college putting up its own MUN), the pursuit of this knowledge becomes a regular activity- regular enough that they may, at the end of those few months of frenzied MUNning- have a fairly good grasp of at least one or two countries’ stances on various issues of ‘international importance’.

And there’s nothing quite like the feeling of throwing your weight behind a ‘foreign’ opinion, and finding, surprisingly maybe, that you can empathize with it. For instance, my friend A was assigned to represent Somalia at a MUN convention. Her reading on the country exposed her to their policies on prostitution, which, she discovered, were much more ‘advanced’ and enlightened than India, a country more economically ‘developed’. As a representative of the Philippines in another convention, she was given the opportunity to read up on the history of a country that Indian students rarely, if ever, encounter in their textbooks. The concept of ‘comfort women’ in particular touched and troubled her, and she took up issues of women’s rights with a conviction and passion that was quite amazing.

I think MUNs give the opportunity of learning, first hand, that the world truly is an interconnected place, that decisions made by one delegate can alter lives in another country all together. It’s about lobbying, having people on your side when you want to make a change, and that means reaching out and trying to understand where they are coming from. What history has taught them, and in return, what that history can teach you.

So yes, some of my friends might sneer and call MUNning a ‘dress up’ game; it is a dress up game, but it is also much more. All good dress up games are more, eventually. They teach us about the importance of thinking like another person, of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and thus, slowly, quietly, subtly, they teach you the importance of being willing to care about someone who is, at the end of the day, not all that different from yourself.