The News Detox

I have never been a dispassionate reader. Whether it is fiction, news, biographies, even fan-fiction. Initially, reading for me was all about the characters and the people involved. Over time I learned to appreciate writing and fiction in several layers and levels, but that first instinct to live vicariously through the characters is uncontrollable.

I remember reading The Clockwork Orange during my final year in college. I consider that one of the worst decisions of my life. Sure, the writing was great and the story dealt with some really interesting concepts. My first venture into dystopian fiction.

But it robbed me of sleep and peace for several weeks following the read. I was upset, scared, terrified of human nature. Worst of all – it ruined Beethoven for me. It’s like Stephen King’s It. Who said clowns were funny? They are monsters after my life.

With fiction, I can exercise choice. There is always the blurb which will tell me whether or not I am in a state of mind to read it. Once I read Revolutionary Road, I put off reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for a whole year. It was good decision.

I don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to news. Most of the news I read is through social media feeds – Twitter, Facebook etc. I also have apps downloaded on my phone that send regular notifications. For months (maybe even years) now, my days begin and end with news about rape, terrorism, cruelty, corruption, misogyny and the sheer apathy of mankind. And if on a rare occasion there is none of that, I am forced to read about a pointless, mind-numbing account of some random TV star’s wedding or a ridiculous catfight between celebrities who can’t act their age.

The mother has been reproaching me over my perennially vexed disposition. My temper is far more volatile than it used to be. In fact, I was rather proud of my generally calm temperament. No idea how I lost that.

I realised it has a lot with what I allow my brain to ingest. How am I to have a good day when the first thing I read in the morning is about farmers dropping dead like flies under the weight of endless debts? Or a woman in my own neighbourhood being raped mercilessly?

I am unable to congratulate friends on their pregnancy because I worry that if they have a girl, the child might get raped at some point in her life. My mother sends a prayer every day for girls forced into sexual slavery in Syria. When a politician does something worth appreciation, I cannot help but wonder if he did so only for publicity or to serve an ulterior motive. I am always either cynical or pessimistic. It’s not a good feeling to live with.

Since the past week I’ve been on what I call the news-detox-regime. I’ve unfollowed all news media on Facebook and Twitter. I don’t read the newspaper. I never watch the news on TV anyway. Complete mind-fuckery. I hoped it would help me cleanse my mind and body of the heaps of negativity.

Easier said than done. If I don’t read news, a friend will send me a Whataspp message about the shooting in Texas. Someone on the elevator will discuss the rape of two women in Uttar Pradesh. Some friend on Facebook will share a Dodo post about someone who tortured a puppy. I cannot help but feel for those people, seethe and become convinced that mine is not a country for women. Or animals. Or the poor.

I know I will get there. Cleanse was never easy. Cannot cut sugar and trans fat and dairy from one’s life in a single stroke. Takes time. Maybe start with portion control

I will get back to reading news at some point but I will have to manage my habits to ensure that what I read is simply to keep abreast of important events, and read material that is truly insightful. I want knowledge, and not just information in form of flashy headlines with twisted accounts of events, sprinkled generously with thoughtless opinions in poor language.

Meanwhile, I also need to change the way I read. I will not be left with any peace if I read everything I come across with such involvement. It makes one miserable.

A dear friend of mine writes a story on her blog. The protagonist in that story recently ended up breaking her best friend’s heart – despite her best intentions. I cried myself to sleep that night. It didn’t help that my friend writes spectacularly well.

This cannot continue. Cannot afford that. I don’t want to have to restrict my reading of fiction – which I truly believe is the best and easiest way to expand one’s experiences and understanding. Reading makes you a better person. I just don’t want it to also make me an unhappy person.

Any suggestions on where to start? Has anyone else tried this news-detox? Has it worked for you?

Let me know? 🙂

 

On My Journey with Poetry

In school, I sincerely believed that I could understand Shakespeare and poetry only if I studied English in college.

I realised by the end of school that Shakespeare wasn’t as bad as I had made him to be in my head. I read Julius Caesar and As You Like It in 11th grade and then there was no turning back. With close attention and some assistance from Google, I was all set.

But poetry continued to intimidate me. Even when I started studying English in college, my approach to it was as if I was trying to sail through a terrible storm.

I was blessed with wonderful teachers in college, and they held my hand as I made my way forward. They gave us some clues and tips but allowed us to make our own exploration.

During my first year in college, we studied poetry starting for Chaucer up to the Victorian age. Before the end of the first year, I was already in love with poetry. But at the time I believed that the beauty lay in the rhythm of the words – in the beat and the sound and the rhymes and the alliteration and the tune.

I enjoyed reciting Tennyson and Browning out loud. I’d listen to Alan Rickman’s recitation of my favourite sonnet over and over again. And I thought John Donne’s The Flea was actually pretty awesome.

In second year we were introduced to the Romantics and the Modern poets and that’s when I had to face what I then believed was blasphemy – free verse. I remember telling my professor that I though free verse was simply a bunch of sentences with major grammatical errors. She just smiled and said that she’d like to know what I thought about it on my graduation day.

I enjoyed Coleridge and Byron; I absolutely loved Keats (and still do! I remember reading Ode to a Nightingale and thinking – well, THIS is poetry) but I never quite got Wordsworth. Except a few lines that caught my eye, Wordsworth never touched my heart. Perhaps because I have always been more comfortable in cities; while the countryside is beautiful, I could spend only my holidays there – not a lifetime. Another poem I really loved was Alexander Pope’s Ode to Solitude. I understood then what people meant when they said a poem “spoke to them.”

But there were two things that made my second year in college most remarkable –

  1. Stephen Spender’s Elegy to Margaret: The most poignant verses every written; the most heartfelt elegy to a loved one.Couldn’t find a link to the entire poem online, so let me just quote:

    Yet those we lose, we learn
    With singleness to love;
    Regret stronger than passion holds
    Her the time remove:
    All those past doubts of life, her death
    One happiness does prove.

  1. The beginning of my love affair with W.B. Yeats [which I struggled with when I read about her personal life, but over the years I have made my peace with it]. Yeats is GENIUS. He is the best.

His powerful words and imagery have been with me ever since that first time I read The Second Coming on the train on my way to college.

I was in my third year and I still couldn’t wrap my mind around most of modern poetry. [Seamus Heaney was an exception. I read Mid-Term Break and I was sad for weeks afterword. I think it was the first time a poem made me cry. Auden was pretty great too, but I think I liked him because he wrote a fabulous elegy for Yeats]

A friend recommended Jack Kerouac’s On The Road during the autumn break that year. I fell in love with the writing; it just… flowed. I was fascinated and I read more about him, and that’s how I discovered The Beats. [Our syllabus focused on Indian and British Literature. The only American poets we studied were Whitman and Dickinson]

Oh what a time that was! I felt like I had found a whole different world – of madness and freedom and anarchy. And that’s when my endless internet trolling led to me a recording of Allen Ginsberg reciting his magnum opus Howl. [Love the animation in this video]

Mind. Blowing.

I understood then what the hullaballoo about free verse was. It truly set you free. To use words as you please, to create a unique rhythm, to allow the words to form their own music, for the beat to arise from the string of passionate words that were just seamless – like the ferocious flow of a river. It was powerful and emancipating. I may not agree with a lot of what he says, but it is a stellar poem nonetheless.

I then went back to Whitman and Eliot and Auden and read their poems aloud – a full-throated recitation. It was poetry, it really was. One didn’t need a rhyming scheme and a meter to create poetry. One only needed to feel. And the ability to translate that into words without any inhibition.

It wasn’t always passionate the way Ginsberg was. Every poet had a unique style and quality. This was something I observed most clearly in Indian poets [who wrote in English. I am not very well verse with Indian poetry in other languages, except some poetry in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil] There was the quiet resilience in the works of Kamala Das, the poignant observations of Arun Kolatkar, the love of words and life and Bombay in Nissim Ezekiel’s poetry, the sheer brilliance on the simple tranquillity in the poems of Adil Jussawala.

While exploring Indian poetry, I also found some wonderful translations of Rumi, Hafez, Ghalib, Hiraoka and Basho. I wondered what I had been doing all my life – I’d spent over 20 years unaware of the existence of these gems.

There are still poems that I find difficult to understand, especially some works of Ezra Pound and Alice Oswald and many others. But they don’t intimidate me – it is only a beautiful mystery I must take time to unravel.

It was only towards the end of college that I consciously took notice of the world of poetry that was beyond what I had learned in college. One couldn’t always classify poetry in convenient categories based on time periods and genres. There was so much to read, so much to explore – and just like any subject in the world, you can never claim to have read it all. And that’s wonderful, because you always have something new to discover.

My perspectives have also evolved – I find more meaning in some poems I had read all those years back, while some seem less appealing than they did then. My tastes have changed and expanded; but even today, I do enjoy a verse in a perfect iambic pentameter.

Poetry, today, is my good friend. It offers little joys and some sorrows and some music and some wonderful evenings. It accompanies me wherever I go and inspires me in moments of sadness. I am grateful.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

– Rumi

PS – Having quoted Rumi, let me also post a poem by my dear friend Sookie. It is one of the most important poems written in this century, and throws light on a topic we all come across in our daily lives but are embarrassed to discuss 😉 Presenting –

Ode to Panties:

There was once a young girl in ASR’s office

who purchased underwear like a novice.

they tugged and twisted at all wrong times,

she twitched and flailed to hide their crimes.

 

Cheap polyester gave her rashes

expensive lace gave her itches.

mixed cotton stuck to her skin

and nylon was its closest kin.

 

 A miracle occurred during junk food run

when she pulled a package just for fun.

Lo! Behold! A panty fell

was it destiny, she couldn’t tell

 

Caressing fingers all but sighed

the item was immediately purchased.

she is now a darling of the parties

thanks to her lovely Jockey panties.

– Sookie

On [Classic] Young-Adult Literature

Young Adult Literature has changed dramatically over the years. When you think about what was considered YA even a few decades back, the shift in writing style and the content is shocking.

It interesting to note the differences – the progression and the regression in the genre:

  1. It speaks volumes of the transition in culture and sentiment over the years – the change in priorities, the ideas of proprietary,  in what is considered attractive, in the attitude/openness of women in accepting their sexuality, etc.

    Of course, in that last aspect, contemporary YA is miles ahead of what it used to be. And that is reason to celebrate.

  2. I think the focus on language and overarching themes has lessened; instead the thrust is now on characters and the relationships between them. Of course YA still deals with themes, but I guess the writing in the early to mid 1900s was more meaty in this regard as society itself was undergoing a massive change and people were still coming to terms with it. That change and conflict is often evident in the writings of the time. Even today YA is a reflection of society, but there is little conscious effort to do so.

    Today, characters and their experiences seem to be the focus. Perhaps because now there is room to explore. The men and women are no longer confined to the dimensions specified by society – of goodness and rightness and masculinity and proprietary and class distinctions and race. (Well, at least they don’t need to be confined. Let’s forget about Twilight, shall we?)

  3. Where things seemed to have moved forward with respect the expression of female sexuality, aspiration and ideal – I think there has been little progress (overall) when we speak of body image. The quintessential good girl may not have been size zero back in the 1930s, but she was still whatever fit the male fantasy at the time – voluptuous, relatively short, golden haired, blue eyed, elegant finger-ed and all things delicate.

    And today, when these women are thin and pale and blonde with big breasts and narrow waists and firm derrieres – this also ends up setting unrealistic ideals for body image that cater only to men.

    And if a woman/girl isn’t any of these things, she is described then as one who is “different” or a “rebel” or any other polite term for “abnormal.” What is common and real is made to look rare and unacceptable in society. It’s a shame.

    [However, a few hours of internet trolling told me this is slowly but surely changing. Especially because a lot of female authors are finding a voice in this genre. I really hope that is true.]

  4. Here’s the thing. When YA lit was gaining popularity in the mid 1900s, it was specifically marketed to schools and libraries and recognized as something that would encourage kids to read.

    Over the years, in academic circles, people have begun to understand that this is something that is catering to young adults and allowing their sentiments and problems, which are usually sidelined by society, to come to the fore. Culturally, over the years, YA lit has become significant.

    However, while it is still serving its original purpose – getting kids and teenagers to read – there seems to have developed a biased against the literary merit of the entire genre. I get why Twilight and the likes would make someone want to puke. But it’s not like you don’t have any bad writing in adult fiction.

    I do admit that a large fraction of YA lit is basically full of useless love triangles with unexplained teenage angst with the major issues only lurking in the background. But then there is a huge load of crap churned out in the name of adult fiction as well. Why this prejudice against YA ?

    The genre is much more than teen-romance. It often deals with real and troubling issues such as the impact of divorce on children, child abuse, bullying, sexual curiosity and awakening, jealousy, peer pressure and many more. In fact, now people seem to have come up with an all new genre called “new-adult” – where the protagonists are not in school, but in college —- basically meaning license for sex.

    It’s ridiculous to not to accept its merit in the field of literature and its contribution to a society that rarely spares a moment to empathize with teenagers.

    [To be frank YA is not my favorite genre. Not even in the top 5. But it’s not because YA is bad, but because I tend to enjoy the others more.]

  5. Theories on language have evolved, I get it. Structure, grammar, vocabulary – all has been challenged. I get it. Language literally holds a mirror to society now. I get it.

    Yet, I enjoy the richness in the writing and language that was used to weave stories and tales in classics such as those mentioned below. It adds another realm to the pleasures of reading. And that also makes them excellent options for re-reads.

So, for those who sometimes wish for a simple romance, for subtlety in emotions and carefully crafted writing, some of the older writings have a timeless charm.

Harry Potter will never be forgotten. And though personally I quite disliked the Hunger Games series, I have a feeling that will also be remembered for a very long time. And some others of the like.

But I would like to list some classic YA novels, ones I think are charming and warm and have a timeless quality to them. I read a lot of these as a teenager and they hold a special place in my heart for that reason. They may or may not be considered better than the stuff that is currently popular, but they are magical 😀

I love these books because they connected with me – the characters, the moments, the relationships, the emotions. And they also got me interested in reading, so I am grateful for that. At the risk of sounding dramatic, let me also add that some of them changed my life. Here we go:

  1. Heidi by Johanna Spyri: It made me imagine the idyllic European countryside – something I had only ever seen on TV. More importantly, despite the exotic setting, here was a young girl I thought I could relate to – one so real that we could perhaps even be friends. It was simple and touching and I felt grown up because I had read a book and the girl in the book lived in Switzerland.

    Years later when I re-read it, I felt the pleasant sense of warm nostalgia waft over me. A delightful read.

    [PS – Yes, this could very well be called Children’s Literature. But it’s in between that and YA, don’t you think?]

  2. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: This should be no surprise. Pretty much the ultimate YA novel out there. It’s the best. No debate.
    Wonderful characters, beautiful writing, spectacular setting, a touching love story and the coming-of-age of a lovely young woman.

    I cannot say enough good things about this book. If you haven’t read it, please do so now!

  3. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: Gilbert Blythe. NEED I SAY MORE?

    This series somehow manages to find the right balance between idyllic and real.

    Also, for those who have already read this, check out The Blue Castle by Montgomery. Not as well known as some of her other works, it’s an independent book and is just as wonderful as the Anne series. Really.

  4. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: Easily the most well written book on this list. It’s Joyce we’re talking about, of course the writing is spectacular!

    It takes you through the ideological, intellectual and artistic evolution of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus.

    It may not be as enjoyable as most YA lit tends to be, but it is definitely worth a read. It has some moments that just hit you so hard – you feel like you’re close to a life changing epiphany.

  5. And now – feminist YA! So we also have The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.

    Aerin is one of the greatest heroes of all time. She breaks all stereotypes and fights for her right to be treated equally with men. Her gender will not decide her destiny. She finds her voice and makes sure she is heard. She is badass.

Here we are –  some wonderful YA lit with awesome characters, great writing, and that special charm that lends them a timeless quality.

P.S – No, Little Women will not make it to this list. I may have loved it when I read it first, but as of today – I pretty much hate that stuff. Nope, Alcott isn’t for me.

On reading lists and women writers

I signed up for the Book Riot Read Harder challenge this year. There were several factors that interested me –

1. Reading diversely could prove to be an enriching experience
2. There’s a very good chance I discover some great books/authors I may not have known otherwise
3. I get to make lists. I love making lists.
4. I can browse the internet for hours in the name of research without feeling guilty about it.

I made a list. I spent hours reading and thinking about which book makes it to the list and which doesn’t. Choosing between few options sometimes led me to a near-existential crisis. Because lists are important.

I stuck with the list for a good two months before ditching it. I might still read most of the books on the list this year, but I realised I don’t quite like having a restricted set of book I NEED to read in a particular frame of time. I usually pick books depending on my mood. I also like a variety in genres because I am easily bored.

A compulsive book buyer, I have a good number of books I own that I am yet to read. Then we have ebooks and recurring festive discounts on Amazon and that list just keeps getting longer.

I’ve decided to not beat myself up over ditching the BR list. For something that requires discipline, charting out a plan, having a to-do list and logging progress is useful. But for something like reading, which I do purely for pleasure and what I gain out of it is just incidental – I don’t want to turn than into a serious chore.

But – the one thing I may consciously try to do is read more female authors. I read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret near the end of last year. Started this year with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Because I didn’t quite enjoy that one, I decided to experiment and went with Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Easily the weirdest, wackiest book I have read in my life. Rhodes is totally the Roald Dahl of this age.

Now I’m almost done with The Martian by Andy Weir. I have my eyes on Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi for my next read. It is the first graphic novel I’ll be reading in physical form since I read V for Vendetta several years ago. Maybe I’ll try and do at least one female author for every two male authors that I read. That shouldn’t be difficult or restricting, right ?

I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own many years ago in college. It made a lasting impact on me, and I often find my thoughts wandering back to it. I wonder how many splendid women writers humanity has missed out on because those women never had the same opportunities as men? Even today, why is the female voice still struggling to be heard in the literary world? Even Joanne Rowling was made to publish her book in the name of J.K. Rowling because her publishers believed the book wouldn’t sell as many copies if people knew it was written by a female author. Never mind the mindblowing story and the artistic finesse.

I’m not in a place to change the world but I can be stubborn in mine and insist on reading the works of these wonderful ladies, well known or lesser known.

Clearly, I have managed to stray from where I started. Let me round up –

1. I love lists.
2. TBR lists are good, but not a short list for a specified period of time. At least not for me. Ruins the fun.
3. Must read more female authors
4. Virginia Woolf was a rockstar