Monthly Archives: April 2013

Mental Blog: Short Vs. Long Sentences

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Google Images: Virginia Woolf

Google Images: Virginia Woolf

Even as I continue to defend myself as an utterly straightforward person, barring the simplest complexities necessary for any reasonably reflective woman brought up in today’s quasi-modern atmosphere, I do acknowledge my unfaltered admiration for the seemingly unending sentences in literature and in one’s own writing. It is but just another style, equally honest and unadulterated as any other piece of art, that requires a skill completely linked to one’s love for vivid descriptions and a spirit of wonderment while toying with words and testing their potency each time by defying the rules that govern the parts and figures of speech, not to forget the insane amount of caution, craft and control one needs to exercise over the language.

Sometime earlier this week I received a message from a childhood friend who had just read one of my writings, and who happens to be a wonderful writer himself. The message read –

“I really liked the long sentences, like pulling on a pizza slice and watching the mozzarella strands stretch out, wondering how far you can get from the box while being impatient about biting into your very own piece of the pie.”

Hmm…was that a compliment? I sure hope so. But I must confess that I was so instantly in love with the choice of words he had used, perhaps the best I had received so far with regard to my long sentences, that I immediately decided to dedicate my next post to that lovely comment and a much wider mental block. Another interesting feedback I received from a teacher once was “I can’t really spot a grammatical error here, but something doesn’t quite sound normal”. I thought it was entertaining, though I didn’t tell her so.

I, allegedly among the very few in my generation, am proudly guilty of this somewhat sadistic trait of indulging in complex long sentences as a writer, and I am (wishfully) tempted to use the very well-known Charles Dickens’ style of writing as a reference point to rest my case on, where the first paragraph that consisted of around 150 words was invariably made of a single sentence! And mind you, there were several reasons in that solo Dickens’ paragraph that could send you looking for a dictionary… ah, another book that is highly ignored these days. Even as a young girl, it gave me immense pleasure to unravel the humour or pathos that those adjectives and adverbs so effortlessly conveyed along with the meaning and mood as they loyally guarded and adorned every noun and verb and lent more life into every character and scene.

In fact, I have, on several occasions, tried to track the right reason that might have drawn me towards such multiple complex sentences or even concepts and ideologies like Virginia Woolf’s style of placing her characters across varying time zones. Was it the writers I followed? But this logic would barely throw any light on my research since I was equally drawn towards the works of writers like Satyajit Ray, Anita Desai, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, Enid Blyton, Earnest Hemingway, among an endless list of prolific writers whose works rested upon the element of soothing simplicity.

George Orwell, another word-wizard, could skilfully and almost magically craft an essay on a seemingly mundane topic like ‘how to make a perfect cup of tea’ with the simplest sentences and yet it remains so profoundly memorable and deeply engrained in my heart. In those essays he made his writing style the sole protagonist, which the plot followed like a dutiful obedient student. Style of writing is a dark horse that on several occasions has the power to rise much above the realms of a storyline. An endless list of names of writers comes to my mind even as I struggle to conclude my limited yet independent understanding of this subject of simple vs. complex sentences where the latter is quietly headed towards extinction (or execution?).

I am a lover of lengthy complex sentences and I do believe they have a unique unconventional elegance and zest of their own. I remember being pulled up on this account several times by teachers, friends and colleagues who have protested, complained and even threatened me of a sinking career while they have accused me of being insensitive to the ‘requirements’ of ‘today’s readers’, as these literary gatekeepers choose to amicably define this apparently rising clan instead of tagging them outright as ‘selectively incompetent’.

I am also told that today’s readers suffer from a declining retention span and a plummeting patience level when it comes to reading though scientific researches proudly announce the rising IQ of every successive generation – so where is the degeneration happening? Or as the locals in Singapore put it ‘so how’? I, for one, remain uncertain however if all this is completely true and if so, would catering to those readers be the primary objective of any writer? Who are our readers? When did literature become so time-bound? And if that were true, then why hasn’t Dickens’ or Woolf’s works become obsolete yet? Or perhaps the right question here would be: should literature be governed by such relatively trivial requirements always?

My vote, even if it shouldn’t or wouldn’t count, would still be for the supposition that literature or any art form should not be burdened with the need to either cater to or reform its readers or audience. And in case that should happen, it should be based on the writers’ discretion (a whole new point of discussion, I am afraid, though not completely unrelated to my ramblings). For me, writing is expressing and discovering one’s own signature style just like painting and dancing. Literature thrives for Literature’s sake. Period.

Even as I marvel at the rising number or contemporary writers with an overwhelming flare for and interest in reality-driven plots, somewhere deep down I crave for fiction writing that promises me a Wonderland or a Neverland – simple yet so fantastic! I crave for the likes of Pickwick Papers and a Mr Bennet, stories and characters that can equally effectively address the prevailing mindsets and social issues in a developing society without fully letting go of the literary magic, the wit ‘n satire element, that still retains the smile on their readers’ faces.

I crave for refreshing essays as those by George Orwell or Bernard Shaw and literary criticism by Virginia Woolf, radical and original, that might or might not be able to transform into a multi-starrer movie! But their writing made an impact, and still do, on the readers’ sensibilities. And, I crave mostly for those signature-style, well-crafted long sentences and elaborate writing styles that distinguished one writer from another! It is astonishing yet heartening to discover that Virginia Woolf was self-published just like many other great writers.

The only time I was taught to let the words flow out of me unapologetically, even as the trend-obsessed editor in me swung back to the typical short sentences, was when I had the opportunity to work with one of India’s best editors Mr Dilip Thakore during my stint as a journalist in Bangalore. His writing would carry a distinct style that I so ardently cherished and even tried to emulate secretly. Thankfully life has wantonly led me to these literary stalwarts and guardians of the world of uninhibited sentences and intricate writing styles, and so I have been sentenced for life to be an ardent admirer and a loyal crusader of complex sentences. There fortunately happens to be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of writing. Perhaps, both simple and complex sentence structures would equally represent the beauty and joy of the ever-expanding dimensions of expressing and experimenting!

Finally, I am well aware of my limited though not in any way stunted understanding of the world of literature. Hence, my sincerest apologies in advance to the offence-taking addicts and also a humble word of well-intended caution: there’s more to come. <wink>

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013

In Search Of Snow

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Confucious Temple (Harbin, China), Source: Madhurima

Confucious Temple (Harbin, China), Source: Madhurima

December 25 – January 7: Quite contrary to common practice, I, for one, find it extremely difficult to pen down a travelogue immediately after concluding an adventure. From my own scrutiny of this abnormal behaviour I have learnt that it is perhaps the level of unadulterated wonderment (something that I am very prone to) that almost automatically and unscientifically converts every rational description into an incomprehensible babble in excitement.  Also, I have always believed myself to be utterly unfit for writing travelogues in spite of being an ardent travel addict. The reason I assume this is so is because, as a writer and as a reader too, I greatly rely on and relish the human elements and experiences rather than facts and figures though my trip to China had been strangely based on some queer facts, self-drawn correlations and no known human experience.

I was turning thirty this year and found that to be a remarkable excuse to plan the seemingly greatest adventure I had had so far. In one of my earlier plane rides I had happened to come across the name Harbin in an in-flight magazine that had listed the top three destinations for the winters. Books have always played a mysterious part and presence in directing my life and this was no exception. The pictures of thick snow, the kind you see on Christmas greeting cards, almost immediately won the attention of the snow-starved in me. The only time I had seen ice was in the refrigerator, as a child and as an adult. I knew I had to see snow before I turned thirty!

The cosmic cue that later confirmed my decision was the fact that Harbin hosted one of the largest international ice and snow festivals that began on no other day than on my birthday eve, 5th of January! This was their 28th annual festival. There could be no other excuse for missing my international birthday bash. The tickets were booked, following which began our enthusiastic, much-revealing efforts on  fact-finding  research and analysis that urged us to shop for layers and layers of fleece and down. By the time we actually boarded our flight, we were told that the temperature in Harbin had dropped to a -36 to -40 degrees Celsius. It was the lowest in the past three decades! There was no looking back. Cold temperatures almost always make the best ambience for a lazy afternoon on a couch or  tucked under a fluffy quilt with a story book in hand and a hot cup of coffee by the bedside – no?

Beijing

The flight to Harbin included a well-planned stop in Beijing for four days. It took us six hours to reach Beijing from Singapore where I live, though I remained within the same time zone. Upon landing, we were told by the stewardess that the temperature that day was -8 degree Celsius though it felt like a -13degrees C with all the icy winds that, like a zillion tiny anesthesia shots, numbed our faces later; even our speech slurred due to this unaccustomed onslaught of cold air and served to divert our attention besides making us laugh. Yet no amount of -13 degrees C could have possibly prepared us for Harbin, and that no one had told us yet.

In Beijing we had picked a modest homely hotel along the Tiananmen Square area where a couple of renowned historic places were within walking distance, that is, if you were well equipped to battle the minus score outside.  Well, we learnt it the hard way though that didn’t dampen our spirits nor affect our plans one wee bit. Empowered by a miniature map of the area with most places marked in Chinese, we set out in search of the Forbidden City. After a while I could feel fine threads of icicles on my eyelashes and hair. That was my very first glimpse of ice in China!

We reached the political landmark, the Tiananmen Square before entering the gates of the once forbidden premises. The magnitude of that quadrangle and the crossroad in front of it was in itself an overwhelming experience that proudly announced to each one of us: ‘welcome to China!’ The two-hour Forbidden City tour that followed fuelled several vivid imageries in my mind as I listened to the stories behind these tall walls. Characters appeared and vanished along those long quiet corridors and from behind the ornate gold pillars as our guide told us fascinating stories of kings and queens that one wouldn’t usually find in any textbook.

Ironically enough, I had picked Oliver Postgate’s Seeing Things to keep me company in this journey. While books take you places sans ticket, travel without books is as unimaginable for me as enjoying the rains without coffee! And it turned out to be the most suitable partner in the mystical old city area of Beijing though, distracted by the list of places I had to cover, I hadn’t remained too loyal to my paged friend. In particular, I was drawn by the gorgeous embellishments in red, golden and green colors that lent character to the graceful descent of the Chinese roofs as they stood out in striking contrast against the white snow. The Temple of Heaven offered one such spectacular sight.

The next most obvious choice for visit was the majestic Great Wall of China. And we opted for the Mutianyu section. Even the basic stretch of the steep climb, in spite of the blessed presence of the cable car, could prove quite exhausting! Also, the thin sheets of ice over the wall could have you slipping ahead rather than walking down gracefully. I must add here though that I happened to have company who actually enjoyed slipping down the icy slope instead of walking down. We stopped to have some hot coffee from an isolated vendor as our eyes and souls feasted on the gigantic open spaces of varying shades of soil and snow in complete contrast to the clear blue sky that we were lucky to have. My mind soared into the clear blue above and dived earthward feeling the cold breeze that caused its wings to flutter like a kite. The experience was breathtaking – both, literally and metaphorically!

In the next few days we visited the Laoshe Teahouse that presented a brilliantly entertaining assortment of Sichuan and Peking opera, Kung Fu, and other performances as we sipped on our green tea served in the traditional Chinese style. We also booked a meal at the famous QuanJude that served the most authentic Peking duck. The entire presentation was worth every penny if not more! In fact, being strategically placed along the bustling pedestrian shopping street –QianmenDajie– this is an absolute must-try; just make sure you take time out to explore the area around it too. The street that houses several western and Chinese brands is outlined by an overwhelming number of ancient city alleys called Hutongs weaving into each other. It is a great place to indulge in some knick-knack shopping and bargaining over silk scarvess, souvenirs, Feng Shui products, shoes, bags etc. Being a booklover, I picked some beautiful bookmarks made of metal with intricate Chinese paintings on them, and some Chinese ink tablets and brushes for calligraphy!

Beyond the signature-style Chinese souvenirs that sell in plenty within these Hutongs, the graffiti-filled walls of the 798 Art District was a breath of fresh air.The location, studded with art and craft showrooms and boutique-stores selling artifacts, junk jewellery, postcards, vintage diaries, glares etcetera make a   perfect Collector’s paradise. This was where I refilled my year’s quota of vintage diaries and picture postcards for almost one-third of what I would otherwise spend. ‘Money saved is indeed money earned’ and who’d know this better than a writer! And after we had earned back our appetite too from all the roaming around there was plenty of food and drink options within the circuit.  The place also offered some great western food options. For those who aren’t adventurous enough to try the local cuisine, here’s a place that’d seem like paradise. The washrooms here were very well maintained too with doors that actually locked all the way!

We concluded our evening with a drink or two at the Red Lotus pub in Hon Hai, one of Beijing’s pubbing alleys, decorated with Chinese red lanterns. Besides the well-made drinks the music performed by the live band there was particularly great since there are very few pubs these days where I get to hear the good ol’ music I grew up listening to. This was a rare evening for me…and definitely a most memorable  one!

Harbin

The first day of the New Year started off with our two-hour flight to Harbin. If there is  a single golden rule in Harbin, besides the more known language barrier, it has to be ‘beware of cab drivers’. They could take you for a royal ride! Though for me, all the white that zoomed past on either side of the road during the cab ride somehow managed to pacify the feeling of being cheated by the cabbies.

In Harbin we stayed at a hotel right across the Zhongyang Dajie, the Central Street, that led us to some of the most soul-satisfying experiences in Harbin. The creamy ice creams of varying flavours seemed so much more delicious in -30 degrees Celsius! And for a change, they didn’t threaten to melt either! The next was the Simmer Pot experience at the Euro Plaza on the same street. The overwhelming aromas and taste of the simmering spices and meat in complementing contrasts to the cold outside bore a hypnotizing effect on our senses (especially sinuses) and we returned to it every day. The staff there welcomed us even during hours when they were closed and our excited and animated, and surely extremely entertaining,  explanations of our order made a great visual treat for everyone including ourselves.

I say this as a true compliment of the highest degree that the Zhonghyang Dajie spoilt me with choices way beyond any ordinary shopping venue! Not only did my wobbling walk over the slippery ice-laden streets seem like an entertaining spoof of an astronomer’s stance on the moon, but the ice sculptures spaced every few meters, the European look-and-feel of the buildings, and all the colourful fashionable woollens carefully-carelessly flaunted by passersby made it a unique experience for pedestrians there! Even the bakeries, local vodka, Burberry look-alikes that perched along the Zhonghyang Dajie easily slipped into my must-experience list! In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hot milk-tea served in KFC came with a choice of including the tasty sago pearls with a gorgeous core that I guessed was red bean.

With no time to lose, on the very first afternoon we walked down to the Zhaolin Park, the Flood Control Tower that commemorated the 1957 floods, the St Sophia’s Church and the Songhua River which by then had frozen completely. The fluid outline and stunning architecture of the St Sophia’s Church with its green dome and brown body made the entire landscape seem so surreal. During the  seemingly accomplishable walk to this church we managed to have several interesting moments including a slip over thin ice while crossing a road and some bum-numbing snow sports along the frozen Songhua River. On our way back to the hotel, being a proud collector of the freakish and funny, the unexpected and unfamiliar, I even picked up a Matryioshka Doll as a souvenir from the city that is better known as Eastern Moscow.

In Harbin, we would receive the comparatively warm temperature around noon and a little beyond it. And that was when I’d be filled with the urge to grab my book and sink into my cozy bed but that was not to be; thanks to the gracious company of friends. The sunset by five in the evening was nature’s way of announcing its curfew time, though that didn’t stop us fromventuring into the sunset city.

One of the days started with a trip to the Siberian Tiger Park, a complete visual treat, where the brilliant golden fur coats striped with the darkest shade of black set the white snow ablaze. Their booming roars, piercing looks and their stealthy strides around their two-legged visitors (thankfully perched in covered vans) was an exhilarating experience. It surely was a gratifying feeling for me to share a close space with these stunningly ferocious creatures…thankfully from within our secure cages…oops, vans.

I also visited the Confucius Temple, which is said to be the largest Yin and Yang temple. The Chinese roofs, that by now I had fallen in love with, in their typical glory, hid themselves under a quilt of soft snow making another artistic picture across the sky canvas.

Though not ona par with the other places that we had visited earlier but the Polar World and GuogeliDajie lent us a feeling of seeing the whole of Harbin…well, almost.

However, the reason that had brought us there was still waiting to be visited…and when we did, it kind of blurred our senses with its overpowering magnitude and brilliance. The Sun Island Scenic Areas, situated on the north bank of the Songhua River, hosted the daytime displays of snow. The gigantic mountains of snow carefully chiselled and transformed into the most intricate works got me speechless in disbelief. A doe-eyed god playing a flute, two tall masquerades precariously supported against each other, the stern stance of an Egyptian god, …there were so many of them. Even the smallest one among them  must have been more than triple my height. The opaqueness of snow under the sun captured the intricacies behind the serene expressions and subtle detailing.

The Ice and Snow World, on the other hand, made full use of the night sky to flaunt its glass-like ice sculptures that glittered with light. There were life-size mosques, sprawling landscapes, Chinese gardens…all made of giant blocks of ice resplendent with multicoloured lights. The word was – magnitude! And just when the dark evening sky seemed too plain against these festive displays, it too was adorned with a breathtaking  display of fireworks that lasted several minutes! It was  the entire city rejoicing and partying with me, as it were, that evening. While the day marked a +30 to my life the temperature outside hovered around a freezing -30 degrees Celsius.

The next morning, we were on our way back, travelling across a distance of 60-degrees Celsius. I smelled like a lamb after ten days of fleece and fur though my mind still wandered back to the city of snow. The only thing that now lent me comfort was the assuring warmth of my storybook against my palm. And I looked forward to wandering away into another story unknown…

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013

White Noise: Why I Blog

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Source: Google Images

It is kind of ironical how two temperaments, though not completely yet somewhat conflicting, can survive so neatly within a person, defining every bit of her. One such entertaining couple that loyally resides within me is my love for writing and a corresponding yet contrasting fear of the routine. While I could write during the oddest hours with utmost pleasure, day after day, in the very next instant I would perhaps be hyperventilating with utter nervousness if I had to attach that joy with an element of uncompromising regularity and an assured certainty. My blog therefore, as I would imagine, would be an entertaining effort to battle that inertia of impulse within me and bind the two conflicting qualities in holy matrimony like any married couple who survives a fruitful companionship through acceptance, need, and of course adjustment. This fragment of space, in a strange sort of way, stands as the single testimony of my primary intent of accomplishing the above. Though the simple reason still remains to be my absolute love for writing.

Here I must confess though, in all honesty, that there used to be a much dumber me who would snap-judge the nature of writings that most blogs carried by their apparent lack of credibility, the element of anonymity of its writer, the frivolity with which words were used and abused, the several unaccounted opinions and facts that were poured out in the name of spontaneity, and the sheer lack of editing, not to mention the risk of plagiarism. But over the years my obsession with facts and grammatical coherence has eased out considerably, hopefully for the better of me. These days, opinions and experiences seem to draw more of my attention than facts and grammatical accuracy in a single language that invariably gets more than its fair share of attention across the globe, though neither of them – opinions or facts and grammar – belittles the other’s presence. The element of obscurity and rawness in people’s perspectives (even of those who wish to remain incognito) reveals so much more of what lies around me. Nothing inspires me more than an independent opinion and a questing mindset; It could be a poet who searches for a meaning behind her existence, or a man who questions the social norms and judiciary system, or it could be a bartender who discovers how a twist of lemon could add the right zing to the spirit!

I remember how, as a child, I was often teased and reprimanded too by teachers and relatives for asking too many questions; some of those questions still continue to haunt me and leave me boggled. Since not all those questions can translate into a meaningful book, poem or a short story, I figured that a blog might just be the most powerful platform for me to communicate them through. If not for anything else, it is always a more romantic proposition to have one’s self-attested significant opinions (like mine perhaps) tossed into eternity within the cyber black hole than having them spiked into a trashcan by an ordinary mortal in the most unimaginative way. Cyberspace that best lends me a sense of eternity seems like the most apt platform for me to voice my opinions and ideas that come to me from another space unknown and equally limitless within me. Since most of what I infer and experience are fuelled by travelling to unknown lands and terrains, interacting with their local people and getting to know the myriad cultures, noticing nature… and of course by books, my writings reflect these elements that have so liberally contributed towards making me. The journey though continues…

Finally, regarding the more organised scheme of affairs in my life, I’d like to make a brief mention of the publication of my book Goddess & Whore that is soon to reach the stores – online and otherwise – within and outside India. I promise to share some more information on what that title contains. There are subsequent titles too that I am working on that should see the light of day in due course of time. And that too would be showcased on The Write Click. As I sign off feeling slightly weighed down by a persistent sense of commitment to blog on a “regular” basis (as is the nature of this platform), my earnest prayer to the Cyber Gods faithfully remain – “may the steam last”… even as my fingers hover around the Ctrl Z keys.

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013