La Madre

Dear Mother,

Yesterday was your birthday. Over the past two years, I’ve been in Dubai to celebrate it with you. One year we’ve gone to Bollywood Park and had a full day out as a family, and another we’ve gone out to a wonderful dinner to share in your joy. This year I was not there, and it’s the first time in a while that I haven’t gotten to see you up-close, behaving like a giddy child and excited by the smallest of things on your special day. I’m glad we did what we did though. The zoom sessions, a free-entry/free-exit policy! The entire thing made it feel like it was a real party. Staying online for the entire thing brought me as much joy as it brought you – mostly because I heard lots of your childhood stories, and people laughed along with you about them.

Every single year I’ve racked my brains to figure out how to make your day memorable. Appa and I have really struggled, especially after all the things you do for us. Let’s take this year only as an example. I was fully prepared to chill at home alone on my birthday, and at the most, consider ordering some outside food. I’ve been home alone for a while now, and while I’ve enjoyed it, you were perhaps the first to sense that maybe I wasn’t a 100% sure I wanted to spend my birthday alone. Chikamma, you and the family figured out all the logistics, Uncle came and picked me up, and I was with them the entire day. But it didn’t stop there. You gave me explicit instructions to stop doing whatever I was doing at midnight and log on to a zoom call with you and Appa. Then you showed a 10-minute video that brought me to tears. It didn’t just make me well up a little the first time I saw it, but I was visibly moved by it each time I played it through the day.

Usually, people make 1-minute videos. Attention economics premises itself on the fact that human attention is a scarce commodity, but boy oh boy do you know how to make me concentrate. You managed to reach out to friends: old, new, surprises – through e-mail, facebook, and Whatsapp! I feel like if I had friends where technology had not fully penetrated, you would have sent them a postcard requesting for their co-operation in this endeavour. You got family to participate, and, you put in the effort to bring it all together, with detailed instructions, illustrations, and learning how to use Windows Movie Maker.

This is not new. It’s just this year’s story.

Do you see how much pressure Appa and I are under?

Which is why I’m glad you take your own initiative in planning your birthday parties. It makes our lives so easy to know that you’ll be happy with everything as long as we follow your instructions and comply with what you’ve envisaged in your head. For us, I think Appa and I are happy to contribute in small ways – helping with your technical setup, proofreading the party invites. Who can forget your 40th birthday celebrations – where we had instructions to play the keyboard, and dance with you, and write a prepared toast!

Just you wait though. One day we will surprise you. I just hope you let us.

Happy Birthday, again!

Love,

Tejas

Topsy-Turvy Day

Today’s been a very topsy-turvy day. It’s been filled with some great highs, and some lows – so I’m ending the day feeling very “meh”. Has today been a good day? In parts, yes. Could it have been better? Yes, for sure. Am I still grateful for today? Most certainly.

I had an excellent start to my day. Woke up early this morning, got a run in and everything. Had a slow, leisurely breakfast. Was early to class. Stayed awake and read a bit of a book. Chilled in the afternoon, gave my synopsis presentation.

Then got confirmation of some news I had an inkling about in the evening. And another confirmation of some news I did not anticipate. That left me second-guessing how lovely the first half of the day had been. I wasn’t too hit by the news I sort of prepared myself for, but the second bit of news definitely knocked some of my good juju out the window.

I’ve struggled with expectations all my life, very recently too – which led to a lot of self-inflicted harm and a lot of introspection. I’m trying and genuinely working on cutting out expectations from several factors out of my control, but it’s a difficult process – and sticking with it sometimes feels like I have to let go of the optimistic side of me I so cherish and love.

Maybe it’s about striking a balance. That cautious optimism – the one that doesn’t place expectations but is always hopeful. I’m not sure. I’ll let that thought marinate. I meant to write “I’ll ruminate” but now I’m thinking about a good falafel sandwich. Yum. Man. Associative memories really suck.

Amidst all of this, the biggest highlight of my day was speaking to my dad on video call for 40 minutes, split into two halves. One in the afternoon, and once at night. I don’t think I’ll remember all these feelings the newses induced in me. What I will always remember is that I spoke to my dad today, for a long time. And we chatted. I’m so grateful for that.

The Books behind the Movie: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction
by David Sheff,
Published by Mariner Books (2007)
Rating: ****

Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines
by Nic Sheff
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers (2008)
Rating: ***

I first heard about the Sheffs’ story when I saw the trailer for “Beautiful Boy”, starring Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet. The trailer had me hooked. I was intrigued by the father-son relationship, and when I found out that there were two books, one written by the father, and one by the son – allowing you to see two perspectives to the story in realtime, in first-person narration, I just had to read them. I read both back-to-back one evening, gripped by the experience, the grief, the love, and the story.

Nic Sheff writes about his own exposure to drugs and alcohol and becoming addicted to meth. David Sheff writes about watching his son getting exposed, and his own exposure to his son – when he was high, and the struggle in loving someone unconditionally. Nic’s own narration is factual, it reads the way an autobiography would – outlining anecdotes and emotional responses, with a lot of reflection about these instances. David’s narration is largely emotional – dealing with the anguish of conflict and confrontation with his own child, and feelings associated with uncertainty about his son’s whereabouts and activities.

These are gripping reads, both of them are. I admire their willingness to share this very, very personal story. David Sheff is a writer and journalist, and the writing flair comes across almost immediately, permeating through the book. Nic’s book, on the other hand is slightly less refined, in quite a few places. It would, however, be absurd to draw conclusions without reading both accounts of the same experience, which is what pushed me to get through the writing, in parts where I struggled.

After reading them, I watched the movie.

I think that’s when the impact of the books really hit me. This is a very real story. It’s people’s lives, told out – in their messy glory. I’m not an addict, and I’m not certain what kind of impact this kind of literature has on addicts themselves. But it’s someone’s personal account, and I think that’s valuable. For me, as a non-addict, it got me to grasp at how grave the issue can get, and the kind of conflict you might go through if you’re in close proximity with someone who suffers with addiction. It also taught me about the different kinds of rehabilitation processes that exist in response to addiction, and the kind of things one might go through while using those facilities and processes. It got me to understand addiction from a fresh perspective, which I’m grateful for.

 

 

The Red-Haired Woman | Orhan Pamuk

The Red-Haired Woman,
by Orhan Pamuk,
Published by Knopf (2017)
Rating: ****

I had a hard time getting into this book. But when I did, I found that I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed reading other novels Pamuk has written. The book’s appeal probably also lies in the fact that it is one of his shorter works.

The story falls into three parts, each of which is quite distinct.

The first part is both the simplest and the easiest to like. The narrator Cem tells of a job he took after his father, who was involved in a left wing group, had disappeared and before his university entrance exams. This involved working as an apprentice to a traditional well-digger. The story describes the process of well-digging and Cem’s relationship with his master, a father figure who tells him stories. Cem becomes obsessed with the red-haired woman of the title, and eventually discovers that she works in a travelling theatre with her husband. This part comes to a dramatic conclusion.

In the second part ,the older narrator continues the story and describes his progression, first in marrying, then by running a company that invests in developing new suburbs of Istanbul, one of which is the town in which the first part is set. The company becomes very successful, Cem discovers that his master survived and succeeded in finding water and completing the well, and that the red-haired woman was a former lover of his father, and the son of the red-haired woman claims that Cem is his father. This story also builds to a dramatic confrontation in which Cem is led by a man claiming to be his son’s friend to see the well, eventually revealing himself as the son, leading to a fight in which Cem’s gun is fired. So if the first part paralleled Oedipus, this is closer to Rostam and Sohrab.

The third part is related by the red-haired woman, which made for an interesting change of perspective. The son is in prison accused of Cem’s murder, and she visits him and tells him her story and Cem’s. She encourages him to write his father’s story, which explains how the first two parts came to be written.

This is a book meant for an introduction into the world of Orhan Pamuk. It is reflective of everything associated with his writing: a depth of plot, complex characters, intriguing perspectives, and so much more. It’s also reflective of my biggest criticism of Pamuk – that he tries to do too much. There are parts here which feel forced, and unnecessary, as with several other works of his. As a result, it’s a perfect introduction, and good material to assess whether or not you’ll enjoy reading Orhan Pamuk.

The Astonishing Colour of After | Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Colour of After,
by Emily X.R. Pan
Published by Little, Brown Books (2018)
Rating: ***** 

Don’t let the number of chapters or pages in this book fool you. It’s a fast-read. Page-turning, emotionally engaging, and gripping, you’ll find yourself wondering where the time went as you finish. If you’re looking to get out of a reading slump, and fall in love with good writing again, this is a great starting point.

The story follows Leigh Sanders, a half-Taiwanese, half-American girl, as she struggles to cope with loss. On the same day she kisses the boy she’s pined over for years, her mother, Dory, commits suicide. At first the grief is overwhelming. She feels trapped in her childhood home with her distant father and the bloodstain marking her mother’s demise haunting her thoughts. Then, the night before the funeral, Leigh is roused from her nightmares by a huge crimson bird calling her name. She knows immediately the bird is her mother, the whys and hows brushed aside in the face a daughter’s longing for her mom. The plot then takes us to Leigh’s discovery of family she never knew, and her journey of “moving on” from an event she struggles to talk about or understand. All the while, her desperation to make contact with her mother once more drives her between the fantastical and the real, making this a journey unlike any other.

There’s a lot of plot depth to the book, which deserves a bit of analysis.

The first is the theme of identity. Leigh’s identity is clearly complex – she’s half-Asian and half-white, and Pan brings this out by describing how society views her. The Americans call her “exotic”, while the Taiwanese call her “hunxie”/”mixed blood”. Through these individual instances, Pan is able to portray the otherization that mixed-race people usually feel, without a strong connection to either cultural group. This conflict is also given a new layer by the presence of Axel, who is half-Filipino, and half-Puerto Rican. Their friendship and understanding, and their journey of family discovery points to the fact that both characters find comfort in each other – because there’s no other place they fit in.

The second, is how Pan tackles mental health. Now, the conversation on mental health has improved drastically – people are now more comfortable to discuss it in society, but Asian countries are notorious for their inability to accept diagnosed mental health illnesses as being real. There’s an ignorance in Asian society, which Pan is able to describe very realistically. Leigh struggles to use the word “depression”, unable to admit to herself that her mother suffers from the same. The suicide that takes place is without a note, and is committed by OD-ing on antidepressants, and several episodes are described in great detail in the novel. Pan is able to explain depression as it really is – difficult to understand, tough to explain and articulate. The biggest thing Pan achieves is that she doesn’t display “continuous sadness” as equal to depression, something I admired after I finished the book. Another achievement lies in steering away from psychonalysis or patient-blaming/patient-shaming. There’s no sugarcoating of the condition, or of death. It’s difficult, but the truth of depression is just that, and Pan’s judicious use of words deserves credit.

The third is art. Now, I wasn’t sure whether to highlight this as a theme within the book, but there’s layers to this which deserves some amount of description. Leigh, Axel, Caro, and Dory, are all artists. Each, unique, and each, with a different connection to their art. Leigh’s father, is an American academic. Stereotypes lead us to believe that strict Asian parents undermine art, viewing it as being a gateway to University, or a skill that deserves mastering purely for the purpose of mastery. What Pan does is flip the stereotype, by showing a large majority of Leigh’s social circle being pleased with art as a career choice, while Leigh’s father attempts to track her to become more “serious” and asks her questions about her future. That narrative was one I found incredibly interesting to read. It creates a tension in the familial relationship that persists throughout the novel, right until the very end. Why I believe art is a theme is also because of how well Pan is able to use colour throughout the entire book. Just like shades on a palette, I learnt about emotions I didn’t know I could ever feel – and the correlation between colour and emotion will strike a chord with any reader. It’s use as a device for me was not distracting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Finally, the fantastic imagery and fantasy elements deserve a lot of praise. The plot is very tight, and the fantasy weaves very smoothly with plot developments taking place in reality. Pan’s conclusion hits the heart hard, describing the truth of experience and memory unlike anyone else I’ve read. Reading the book reminded me a lot of the Disney movie Coco. It incited similar emotions in me, I guess.

My only qualm with the book was the romantic side of the story. Romance sells, but in parts, the romantic uneasiness felt out of place. The conclusion to the romantic arc within the book was predictable and well built-up. It’s pace at the end, however, was rushed, and artificial. No natural love story progresses like that. There’s a lot more conversation – one that I would have loved to see the protagonists engage in. The book leaves a few things unsaid, which might annoy some readers.

All in all, a must-read, quick-read. Will make you feel things. Would recommend.