Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Trying To Grow

My review of Trying To Grow by Firdaus Kanga has been published (modified) in the Apr-Jun 2009 issue of Success & Ability.

The wish to reread an old book may be same as wishing to meet a distant cousin whom you had only met for a few days in your childhood, and, those days are the most cherished memories of your younger days. Now, you feel scared that he may have changed, may have lived a life totally different from yours, and, may have grown up to be temperamentally exactly opposite of you. Then how will you greet him? Hug, shake hands or just say Hi?

I felt the same kind of trepidation when I took up Firdaus Kanga’s semi-autobiographical novel Trying to Grow (recently relaunched by Penguin in paperback). I had read the (borrowed) hardbound version some twelve-thirteen years ago. Those days I was still in the Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, Jeffery Archer, and Arthur Hailey phase, and, Indian English writing was still in nascent stage (I hadn’t read any except a few books by R. K. Narayanan). So, though I was charmed by Kanga’s writing I wasn’t capable of enjoying it in its full lustre (there was a burden that I was reading something very important that I may not be able to appreciate fully).

Trying to Grow tells the coming-of-age (clichéd Bollywood phrase, but trust me it has lot more going for it) story of a boy born with Osteogenesis imperfecta (Brittle Bone Disease) who would break every bone if exerted slightest pressure till the age of five.

This book can be described as showing what roller coaster ride a disabled person’s life in India can be through eyes of Daryus Kotwal nicknamed Brit (as in Britt Ekland and not punning his medical condition as justified by his ten years old sister Dolly when he was born).

Brit’s story may feel funny and frivolous on the surface from the beginning when Brit as an eight year old is taken to a Miracle Man Wagh (tiger) Baba by his father Sam. The Baba does not wear any clothes and as expected turns out to be a fraud. Even the dialogues amplify such situations, especially between Brit and his sister Dolly are laced with innuendos and baser connotations that we fear that their relationship may be bordering on incest.

It is only when we put our analytical caps on that we realise that this just a ploy by the author to lull the reader into a comfort zone (as a scheming boxer would wait patiently for his opponent to let his guard down to give him the knockout punch) before letting him know the harshness of the world occupied by the disabled.

More than the pathos of the protagonist (we doubt for that matter if there are any going by his jovial outlook) who would not grow more than four foot, the story focuses what the people surrounding him go through. His parents are always doubtful of what to dream or aspire for their ill-fated offspring. They are always in conflict amongst themselves, if one of them feels gung-ho about his prospects the other paints a bleak picture. And, his sibling Dolly is the epitome of unconditional love, she is ready to sacrifice her joy to give happiness to her lame brother.

In short, anyone who has grown up in India in the last few decades with severe disability and normal intelligence will have at least a few anecdotes to point and say this has happened in my life. Perhaps except the sexual encounters that our hero Brit was lucky to have (maybe I’m jealous).

Here are couple of snippets that stayed with me after I finished the book for a second time:

When Brit gets a Surprise Special Prize from the School on their Annual Day where he went write exams after studying sitting at home and coming fifth in the class:

Around me the applause burst and swelled like some orchestral climax while I grew smaller and smaller in my seat wishing I wasn’t there, wishing Father Ferra hadn’t talked about me, wishing I hadn’t got this prize for having legs that didn’t work.

And, here is the recklessness of forgetting ones disability and jumping into insurmountable situation:

Funny, isn’t it? When someone is the way I am, you’d think he’d never forget it. But I do. For hours, days. Till I pass a mirror or am ditched at the library.

And, coming back to meeting a long lost cousin: I was as charmed by Brit Kotwal as I was thirteen years ago and felt like giving him a brotherly hug.

Monday, July 06, 2009

On Smoking

A slightly edited version of this write-up has appeared in Apr-Jun 2009 issue of Success & Ability.

One dreadful thought that I had as a teenager was that I can never be a writer because my left hand was dysfunctional. And, it wasn’t that that I couldn’t use my right hand to write, it was just the hypothetical image of a successful writer that I had in my mind; a bearded fellow at his table, half a dozen of reference books, dictionaries/thesaurus etc. scattered around. A fountain pen in his right hand with a sparkling golden nib going about making a fuzzy sound as it scratches an A4 size paper. His left wrist working as a paperweight holding down the paper he is writing on; a luminous glow emanating from between his fingers with addictively fragrant smoke.

So, somehow I got this impression that smoking cigarette was vital if I wanted to be a good writer (can’t pinpoint today how that idea got into my head). I always cursed my crooked left hand (with the wrist protruding outward, elbow folded at an odd angle and the fingers remaining in a perpetual fist) whenever I failed to write something as well as I wished or read something really good and felt it was beyond my capability to write like that.

Those days smoking wasn’t a social taboo or even a criminal offence as it is now. We could see people freely enjoying it, whether it was an elderly uncle at home, or the rickshaw puller puffing away his twenty five paise worth of Beedi or Mammootty or Amitabh Bachchan lighting up an imported brand of brown cigarette on the silver screen.

The craving for the nicotine induced smoke virtually made me a sniffer dog. I would be always looking out for smokers in the vicinity and tried to drag in as much stuff as possible of what they exhaled.

The harmful side effects of the cancer sticks started sinking in when Doordarshan became the most vital part of my idle life. It had a couple of anti-smoking Public Service commercials. One was a simple message showing cigarette bending downwards from the centre signifying impotence. Other one was more impactful, which ended with Gary Lawyer carbon monoxide affected baritone singing with a cigarette in my hand, I was a dead man. More material started appearing in the print media about the ill effects of cigarettes; from simple bronchitis, coughing, impotence to deadly cancer. All this information curbed my wish to be a smoker.

It was really scary to imagine myself coughing incessantly, while making serious effort to write. I’d the problem of breathlessness as a child; it came with an itchy feeling in the chest and phlegm induced gruff sound. It made me invalid and miserable for a few days. Memory of those days returned whenever I came out of the movie theatre with hundreds of live chimneys (working non-stop for nearly three hours) around. I would have the same feeling in the chest as I’d have during the breathless phases as a child. So, it acted as a deterrent subconsciously. But, still.

A more frightening nightmare was; what will happen to my intellectual image if I became hairless as a side effect of chemotherapy? My craftily unkempt beard, bushy eyebrows and thick sideburns that could hide my large ears; what’d happen to them? I’d be reduced to being as smooth as a mannequin. And, above all, thoughts of those tubes and needles pierced into every penetrable part of the body; as they show terminally ill patients in the movies.

But, it didn’t root out the craving fully. I got a few opportunities take a puff or two here and there in my mid twenties, when I made a couple of friends who were courageous enough to take me out alone (without the protective shield of the family). But, they were reluctant about me trying a cigarette; their logic; you can’t even swallow a morsel of fried rice without coughing for half an hour, what will happen if you drag too much smoke? There was lot of advising before the tobacco roll was put between my lips; make your lips dry, this thing is expensive, don’t drag too much, be careful that smoke doesn’t reach your throat, be absolutely calm etc.

On the other hand, my writing aspiration starting chugging ahead, couple of my write-ups appeared in the newsletter of the Spastic Society of Eastern India. And, a few letters were accepted by newspapers and magazines. Those things gave me momentary joy. After the initial excitement of seeing my name in print, depression wrapped around me; a feeling of disappointment came over with a thought that if I could do it; it must be very easy. The wish to smoke took a back seat. But, it did not vanish fully. Meanwhile, opportunities in writing became better by the day; from amateur to professional.

Once I read an article by the late actress Priya Tendulkar where she wrote that her father playwright Vijay Tendulkar had this peculiar habit of keeping a packet of peanuts and chickpeas on his table while writing and putting a handful into his mouth in between. After that I insisted to Ma to put a bowl of peanuts on my table every evening. But, that too flopped because of my left hand; I had to stop writing/typing whenever I felt like eating from that bowl.

Then one day I heard Saint Sunil Gavaskar while doing commentary talking about peculiar habits of some of the players when they came out to bat; his fellow commentator asked whether he (SMG) chewed gum or took a stroll in between balls. Gavaskar curtly replied; “I did neither, I’d rather focus on the next ball instead of chewing gum or taking a stroll”. From that day onwards I have even stopped playing music when I’m working.

Has anyone coined a phrase like ‘deformity is bliss’? After going through the process of writing this, I feel it is.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Where are we headed?

A fabulous music video on Environmental Activism; I love the earthy tone and the acoustic music.

Got it from Salil Bhai’s blog, my second best writer hero after Alexis Leon. Can any post of mine be complete without his mention?

Read their life stories here and here.