Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Writing history

Though this blog is primarily about books, this post is going to deviate a little.

It’s about a brochure.

A brochure that I had to write about a year back, for the boutique hotel, Koder House in Fort Cochin. Researching this brochure was the most fun I’ve had in recent years, when all the elements that I love most came together on one routine morning. History. Biography. Good Food. Conversation. Exploring. Even a little shopping. And getting lost, too.

My colleague/ friend and I set out for Jew Street, Mattancherry – the old part of Cochin, which is where Cochin’s famous Jews were once based. There are still a handful of them living in Cochin now. Her car was mint new, dying to be put to the test, and clueless as we were about the Fort Cochin-Mattancherry area, it certainly was.

We were asked to meet the Halleguas, the grandchildren of the patriarch who first built the Koder House in Fort Kochi (some distance away from Mattancherry). The Halleguas Queenie and Samuel, septuagenarians both, live in a first floor apartment surrounded by velveteen couches, rosewood furniture and screens – and literally scores of photographs and memorabilia, including sepia tinted pictures from the glory days of the Koders.

We sipped our coffee, mobile phones switched off, and drank in the atmosphere and the tales Mr. Hallegua told us about the distinctive three-story house. (More on that at www.koderhouse.com). All the while I couldn’t help feeling I had actually taken off to a different land, a feeling reinforced by the Halleguas’ appearance. Except for their fluent command of Malayalam and the local idiom, the pink-skinned, apple-cheeked duo could easily pass off as Europeans – descendents of the tribes of Israel, certainly.

To some extent, the Jews in Jew Town live an isolated existence. There are very few of them left here – perhaps fifteen or so – and most of these are from the older generations. The young have long since left, some presumably to Israel, many, certainly to America. And yet it is not money which has prompted this exodus, because the Koders for one were stupendously wealthy. Nor was it persecution because the kings of Cochin had been extremely supportive – as Mr. Hallegua himself said. Perhaps it was inevitable, because the community – and I am not being critical here – is extremely insular. To survive, they had to leave.

This is evident all over the narrow length of Jew Street. The buildings flanking it, once owned as Mr. Hallegua said by his ‘cousins’, are now all Kashmiri shops or so called ‘antique’ stores. But don’t let a craze for authenticity prevent you from rummaging among these – I got a beautiful green glass hanging lamp for Rs.200/-, which I loved, though it’s about as antique as the pair of shoes I wear to work everyday.

Perhaps the high point ought to be the visit to the synagogue. I say ought, because there are many things that I experienced that day, that could vie for the privilege. Mr. Hallegua personally escorted us to the Synagogue. It was past visiting time, but the Halleguas have for generations been caretakers (if that’s the word) of the Synagogue. Mr. Hallegua shut the door on the tourists outside and asked them to come back at visiting time.

Most things about the synagogue are common knowledge, but I was struck by how much more intimate the place was than I’d expected and by the peculiar coolness of air that is common to all the historic places I have visited. If I were fanciful, I would say that the breeze of a thousand whispers from the past had together contrived to lower the temperature a few degrees. For more details on the synagogue visit wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradesi_Synagogue

It was lunch time by then, so we took leave of the Halleguas, and drove to Fort Cochin (again asking for directions constantly) to look at Koder House with new eyes. Shrouded as it was under the dust of the renovation work, we could still say - This was Queenie’s room. Where she perhaps, as a teenager escaped the noise of the legendary Friday open house parties, which hosted ambassadors, celebrities and heads of state. This was Samuel Koder’s den, where he smoked his hookah and his ‘nice-smelling cigars’. This was where the maiden aunt, Lily, lived. This was where the family ate its fill of Bourekka, at the long dining table.

We had a personal agenda as well. I’d heard a lot about Kashi Art Café, which is just a street away from Koder House. The café serves vegetarian continental food, and has an excellent patisserie. But the main attraction here is the artwork on display – which changes periodically. I don’t know who was exhibiting that day – indeed I showed a philistine-like lack of interest in it. The food is served not a la carte, but as per the day’s menu. We got vegetable soup and herb cheese sandwiches, both very well-made, and topped it off with a Latte and divine chunk of chocolate cake (which we ordered separately). The whole time, I felt I was being extraordinarily good to myself. Check out www.kashiartgallery.com to know more – though the site focuses more on the art aspect of the café.

The brochure was duly finished and Koder House opened to resounding success. Ironically, I have not seen it since renovation was completed, nor have I been to Kashi Art Café again. No wonder that as months pass, this day takes on mythic proportions.

Magic Realism and ‘Prep’

I was on a train many years ago when I read my first Magic Realist work – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I think my eyes sped over the zig-zag, up-and-down story and style faster than the train. I was fascinated for days on end.

I read Tin Drum. I even devoured John Irvings’ more lightweight Magic Realism.

I didn’t read A Hundred Years In Solitude, however.

I left it too late. I took up the book last year and put it down after 30-40 pages. One of the few books I’ve abandoned, and it had to be this mammoth classic. I was disappointed in myself.

But I realized, it was the genre. I was exhausted by it. It had lost its power to shock me. Its rhythms of repetition, its fantastic imaginings, its symbolic occurrences – all the things I loved so much about the genre once – those very same things left me cold now.

I have no energy left to keep pace. That’s part of why I loved 'Prep' by Curtis Sittenfeld. Again, picking up the book was an impulse prompted by a vague recollection that I had read her articles on Salon. Since Salon is hallowed ground to me, I borrowed 'Prep'.

And what a powerful read it turned out to be. True, it covers no particularly new ground. Misfit teenager, tries to belong, small failures, a chance at happiness – but what a unique novel she has fashioned out of this done-to-death material! Lee – the protagonist haunted me for weeks, until I couldn’t remember if it was my sister, a close friend, or myself that she reminded me of.

And all this, in the simplest written book I’ve read in a long while.

Booker Prize Winners

I am doing the rounds of this particular list only now.

Of course, I am ashamed to admit that I have only recently gone about this scientifically, as it were. Earlier, books fell into my lap, and it just so happened that some of them were Booker Prize Winners. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle) was discovered in this fashion – rather it was discovered after I read Doyle’s The Snapper, (a book, incidentally that I regretted borrowing, but only for the first fifteen pages).

Disgrace (JM Coetzee) was lent by a friend – who I found out, later, was an avid Bookers’ follower. Which meant that in spite of my innately random approach to reading, I was indirectly following the Bookers.

Of course the first one I read, (consciously, knowing that it was Booker Prize Winner) was Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things. It’s quite the fashion to revile it now – but it is one of the most readable and poetic things I had come across then, and I still remember my excitement mounting page by page.

One reason why I’ve taken this approach is that Booker Prize fiction, by and large is of good quality. I loved Possession (AS Byatt) for instance. The Line of Beauty, not so much, but it was still better than your run of the mill book and quite thought provoking. Though it’s about the 80s, it reminds me more of the early 90s, when India was still perhaps in the 80s. Life of Pi actually disrupted my sleep for two days. Vernon God Little had me laughing and drawing parallels with American life.

What I mean is, for every five or ten Booker Prize winners you read, you’ll find one that’s just unforgettable. And so now, I’ve actually taken a printout of the winning novels. Though I still pick at random from within this list, as fancy takes me – I now have a purpose to my reading and I feel as though I’ve a struck a secret deal with someone.

Getting started

As I had resisted the idea of a blog for so long, I decided the only way I could do it would be to create a gentle, no frills, no pressure platform for me set down a few thoughts on my enduring passion - books. I will attempt very little critical analysis, and my recommendations will be as simple as ‘I liked it’ and ‘Great read’.

I work with words for a living and I think I would find it exhausting to try verbal and intellectual gymnastics here.