Social media seems to have caught a terrible bug, ever since the onset of the Ice Bucket Challenge. There are all sorts of “Bucket Challenges” going on these days, with most of them having nothing to do with either buckets or challenges. Though pretty terribly named, there was one that caught my eye - The Book Bucket Challenge. I’m very partial to books and if there’s anything that involves books, I clap my hands gleefully like a kid in front of a candy store. The “challenge” involves you to list the top 10 books that influenced you. I decided that I didn’t want to be left out, so I came up with my own list as well - the top 10 books in the chronological order that I read them in, focussing on the books that influenced me as I grew up over the years.
1. Circus of Adventure, Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton was my favorite author when I was in my pre-teens and her books have left an indelible mark on me. Amongst all her books I’ve read, Circus of Adventure stands out, for the book contained everything that fascinated me - mystical foreign lands, a government in turmoil, a runaway monarch-to-be and of course, a talking parrot.
2. The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, Robert Arthur Jr.
Coming into my early young adult phase, I had this fascination of becoming a detective, a crime fighter, solving mysteries that adults couldn’t. The Three Investigators series (of which this book is a part of) was perfect! And this specific book itself was so clever and ingenious that I remember the “puzzles” and how the protagonists cracked them until today. By the way, did I tell you that the protagonists were three young men, each having their own eccentricities and idiosyncracies (come to think of it, Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews and Pete Crenshaw do share some similarities with Phil, Siv and Arty :-))
3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
Like most folks in my generation, I grew up with Harry Potter. Harry and friends were 11 when I was 11, they were 14 when I was 14, they were 17 when I was 17. I’m glad I was part of that generation. Needless to say, GoF was my favorite book in the series, and the series itself is my most favorite series of all time. Remember that chill you got when you realized the true identity of Mad Eye Moody? Epic!
4. Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
I was introduced to Crichton’s genius in my late teens. This man had a gift of weaving realistic, cutting-edge technology into fantastic tales that would thrill and excite you. Take Jurassic Park for instance - an ingenious plot, a sound scientific base and a heart-stopping thriller. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Crichton played in an influential role in helping me choose my career.
5. Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
I read the Da Vinci Code when the book was in its peak of its popularity and controversy. One might argue the validity of certain factual claims made by Mr. Brown, but what one can’t argue is that he re-invented this absolutely fantastic recipe for storytelling. He brought back action and adrenaline rushing thrills into the world of novels, backed up with mysterious and intriguing story lines. I might’ve liked Angels and Demons better, but I read the Da Vinci Code first, and its style just blew me away.
6. Lord of the Flies, Sir William Golding
I was made aware of the general storyline of Lord of the Flies in my middle school years, thanks to an “interactive” chapter about it in our English textbook. But what I didn’t know was that this masterpiece is much more than an adventure story of some boys getting stranded on a deserted island, until I actually read the book a few years ago. To put it simply, it’s a perfect blend of literary masterclass and popular storytelling.
7. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read the Great Gatsby when I was 23. I couldn’t have chosen a better time. While no one doubts the literary strength of this book, how much you like the book depends on when you read it. If you read it when you’re too young, you won’t relate to the characters and hence won’t appreciate it. If you read it when you’re too old, you’ll probably pity Jay Gatsby and just put the book down. But if you read it in your early-mid twenties (and especially if you’re a romantic fool like me), you will realize that Jay Gatsby is just you in exaggerated form, and Nick Carraway is just you in understated form. And when you make that connection, the impact on you can be profound.
8. Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer
I’ve always been a silent rebel all my life. And often times, that rebel inside me has told me to run away, leave worldly pleasures and live an ascetic life in the wilderness. But then I read Into The Wild, and my perspectives on life took an absolute U-Turn. Through a heart-wrenching true story that made me weep at many points , Jon Krakauer and Christopher McCandless taught me an important lesson that I will never ever forget - “Happiness only real when shared.”
9. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
I read Ender’s Game when I was 24. Had I read it when I was 14, I would’ve turned out as a different human being. Every young adult who’s interested in Science Fiction should read Ender’s Game, for the book teaches you about leadership, handwork, sincerity, compassion and most importantly about being sensitive and being aware of the repercussions of your actions. Simply unputdownable, Ender’s Game was one of the few books that I’ve read in a single sitting (~8 hours straight)
10. Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Could someone craft a more beautiful and poignant story than Life of Pi? Highly unlikely. The book is a true testament to the power of storytelling - how a completely fictitious story can change your fundamental beliefs surrounding hope and faith.
Sunday brunches…Rivers of alcohol…Portable potties
I turn right on 9th, walk across the perpetually busy Market St that cuts through the heart of the city like a clean brutal slash from a gigantic Katana blade. As always, I see the regular soiree of drug crazed people on the road. The delectable aroma of urine and weed wafts through to my nostrils, as always.
I turn left on to Hayes St and come face to face with a massive mural that can be mistakenly dismissed for yet another cool painting on the wall, but when paused and observed for more than a fleeting moment, evokes a great sense of tragedy and loss. It’s a mural dedicated to Andrew “Bart” Simpson, a champion sailor who tragically lost his life as his America’s Cup catamaran nose-dived into the frigid waters of the Bay. Amen.
As I walk further on Hayes St, the seediness begins to fade away. The smell of urine is replaced by one of warm toasted bread. There are still people on the street though idling away their Sunday morning on the sidewalk. But this time, they are not homeless junkies accompanied by their faithful canine buddies. Instead, I see groups of suavely dressed young men and women, their eyes hidden underneath dark sunglasses, their silverware cluttering against the porcelain of their plates as they attack their Sunday brunch of eggs and bacon. Their dogs sit by their side, their leashes tied to chairs, parking meters and electric poles, blissfully unaware of their owners’ lifestyles and eating habits.
Until now, San Francisco just looks like how it does every other day. But the moment I cross Octavia Boulevard, I see the shit show emerging in front of my eyes. Rivulets of alcohol flow through on both sides of the road, emptying themselves into storm drains at each intersection. Given that the state of California is under a severe drought, I wouldn’t be surprised if the storm sewers contained more alcohol than water at this point.
As the shit show heads westward along Hayes, a group of individuals donning the fluorescent green overalls of the San Francisco municipality begin their long, arduous job of cleaning up after us. Their faces are expressionless - no anger, no resentment, no excitement. It’s a just a regular day for the city’s hardworking employees who are, if you think about it, indirectly responsible for San Francisco being a crazy, liberal, yet clean and beautiful city that it is.
The SFPD is out there too, poised on their majestic motorcycles, waiting to spring into action should this Bacchanalian party transcend into riotous vandalism. A random thought crosses my mind…What would Mr. Monk think of all this?
With great alcohol comes great urine. And thankfully, a truckload of portable toilets rushes past me in an effort to mitigate the number of trees being visited and front-yard bushes being relieved upon.
Hayes Hill…Boorish Indian brogrammers..A family of penguins at Alamo Square
Bay to Breakers is considered an easy race for the seasoned runner. For starters, the route is just about 12k long (significantly shorter than a half marathon). Moreover, the course is fairly flat with a long gradually sloping downward run all through Golden Gate Park. The only real challenging part of the whole course is the Hayes Hill, a stretch of about 8 blocks that rises at a sharp angle until it peaks at Alamo Square on Hayes and Pierce. No wonder the organizers of B2B have a special award for the fastest time clocked on this small uphill stretch.
I make my way up the hill, catching my breath ever so often and high-five-ing random people on the street. I’m sweating profusely now and this jacket of mine hangs like an albatross across my neck. Perhaps I should strip down to the bare minimum like this Adam and Eve who walk past me with nothing on except leaves covering their private parts.
The crowd gets thicker and people start to congregate on the front stairs of buildings on both sides along the road. A bunch of cops engage in an interesting discussion, perhaps arguing over how to handle the drunken shenanigans that are soon to follow.
As crowds come in, entrepreneurs follow. What better way to make a quick profit than setting up an impromptu food cart selling greasy hot dogs to hungry people heavy on beer.
Though the San Francisco Bay Area has an alarmingly high population of folks like me from the Indian subcontinent, there are surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) very few Indians in the city proper. (Though if you ask someone who lives in Sunnyvale or Fremont where they’re from, they’re more likely than not to say San Francisco. At this point, I must tell you that SF is as different from Sunnyvale than Delhi is from Vladivostok). Just then, I bump into a trio of boorish Indian dudes speaking in a terrible impersonation of an American accent, trying desperately to fit into this exclusive cohort spawned by the rich kids of the tech age. I had never really understood this term before, but when I looked at these guys, I knew what the word “brogrammer” stood for. (Actually, I have a new term for this sub-cohort - “desi brogrammers”.) As I walk past them, one of them shouts to the other, “Hey Shubham (name changed), look at that Indian guy without a costume!” I turn around to see his fat finger pointed at me. His ugly smirk makes my pupils constrict in revulsion. Shubham (name changed) wobbles in a drunken stupor and replies, “Fuck him man”. I smile, turn around and continue walking. Trust Indians to abuse other Indians.
At the crest of this Hayes Hill lies one of the most beautiful spots in the city. Known as Alamo Sqaure (or the-park-that-features-in-the-opening-credits-of-Full-House), it’s a small park with meadow like grasses and tall redwood trees that overlooks like the gorgeous Victorian houses (called Painted Ladies), the distinctive pyramid facade of the Transamerica Pyramid and the rest of downtown San Francisco. I take a break, catch my breath and marvel the surroundings.
Meanwhile, a family of penguins gets ready for a photoshoot.
(to be continued…)
Disclaimer: The following is a pseudo-real/pseudo-fictional piece that contains strong language and references to things that people under 18 shouldn’t read about. Reader discretion advised.
Loud music…High pitched voices…Early morning drunkenness
The sounds of Coldplay’s Paradise flow through my open windows, caressing my ear drums and pulling me out of my slumber. I can hear a lot of background chatter - bottles of champagne being popped, beer cans being snapped open, the clatter of glasses, the excited screams of women and the tenorous shouts of men. I put on my glasses, still feeling groggy, and squint at the display on my phone. It screams 8am. What the fuck is happening at bloody 8 in the morning?
I walk up to my window and look below to see a motley crew of people gathered at my neighbor’s balcony. Among many other weird sights, I see a man dressed as a Taco (yes, you read that right), another one dressed as a Roman soldier, a girl in a pink tutu and another one dressed as the Statue of Liberty. In front of them is a table lined up with Mimosas and Bloody Marys.
The drinking starts. Alcohol gets emptied at an alarming rate. The music gets louder. It’s 8am on a fucking Sunday morning, but the party has already begun.
Though this city loves its booze, I have seldom seen parties start this early in the morning. And then I suddenly realize that today is a special day, a day of celebration, festivity and drunken revelry. The day of “Bay to Breakers”.
Seven miles…African runners…Inebriated people in costumes
As an SF Chronicle article eloquently put it, the “Bay to Breakers” is a celebration of life between the San Francisco Bay and the waves of the Pacific. It’s an annual race that starts at the Embarcadero, runs all the way through the city, East to West, until it hits the Pacific coast at Ocean Beach. The route measures about seven and a half miles and cuts through the heart and soul of this eternal city. The really amazing thing about this race is that it’s been conducted without fail for every single year since 1912. That means, when the Luftwaffe was bombing the crap out of Warsaw and Rotterdam, the folks in San Francisco were still running this race. In fact, in 1986, 110,000 people apparently ran the race, setting the Guiness World Record for largest foot-race in the world.
It comes as no surprise that the African runners have been dominating this race over the past few years. This time around, a Kenyan and a Burundian win the men’s and women’s race respectively finishing the 12 km course in 35 and 40 minutes each. To put things in perspective, that’s the amount of time it takes me to bike to work, which is about 5km from my apartment.
By the time I brush my teeth, the serious racers have already finished the race, grabbed their bounties and have gone back home. But wait, that’s not what Bay to Breakers is all about. For most San Franciscans, it’s about walking, running, crawling, slithering, leap-frogging through the entire race course, dressed in the most ridiculous of costumes (or no clothes at all), amid music, dance and drunken revelry in true Bacchanalian tradition.
Financial opulence…Technological brashness…Homeless people
Someone once told me that you cannot really call yourself a true San Franciscan unless you run the Bay to Breakers at least once. Well, given how much I love this city’s idiosyncracies, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when I made that sudden decision to run the Bay to Breakers, taking extreme liberties on the definition of the verb “run”, of course.
I reach the starting point of the race on Howard and Main St at 10.30am. Well, surprise, surprise, there is not a soul to be seen anywhere. Did the race really happen here? Where are all the crazy costumed drunk people everyone told me about? What kind of a joke is this? I look at my watch and realize that I’m so fucking late…that they’ve even torn down the scaffolding and taken off the posters. The only remaining evidence that the race ever started here is a line of chalk on the road that says “B to B start”. I take a picture to prove that I “started” the race, and begin walking along the race route.
The South of Market neighborhood (or SOMA, going by its hip name) thrives with activity during the weekdays as young technocrats buzz around with their $5 coffees and $10 sandwiches, banking their financial future on the possibility of making big bucks when their startups go public. But during weekends, this place is a fucking wasteland, a desolate ghost-town in the grip of a post-apocalyptic epidemic that’s wiped out most of the human race. The restaurants are closed, the glass monoliths lie lifeless, shutters are pulled down on the once warehouses, now the HQs of some random mobile app companies.
I walk past the Moscone Center and encounter a familiar sight. This reminds me of a game I play whenever I’m about to cross this ginormous convention center. The game’s called - Guess-the-conference-contest, where I try to guess the tech company that’s taken over the exhibition venue. Lo behold, this time it was a company whose very name has the essence of San Francisco in it. The next game I play after that is Guess-the-band-who-is-paid-a-lot-of-money-to-perform-during-these-conferences contest. Will it be Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Metallica or Green Day or <insert-rebellious-punk-rock-metal-band-name>? Such a fucking irony.
While a few miles away, a horde of San Franciscans are getting sloshed and smoked up and doing other crazy things that San Franciscans do, here I come across another horde of SF Bay Area-ians…the sober ones in clothes, lugging machines on their backs and with name tags dangling across their necks. Tomorrow starts here…
If I were to believe that, then tomorrow is a very sad place to live in. The moment I cross Moscone Center, I bump into 6th Street, an enigmatic seedy street that lies in peaceful co-existence with all the opulence around. As I wait for the lights to turn green, I see a homeless man peeing on the wall, a drug crazed junkie with a signboard asking very earnestly, for more money to buy weed and an old woman on a wheelchair screaming and hurling abuses at no one in particular. When you think about it, the net-worth differential between 5th & Mission and 6th & Mission is quite staggering.
As the ideologies of Adam Smith and Karl Marx engage in a fierce battle in my brain, I come across the reassuring sight of good ol’ Arnie…We may be rich or poor, young or old, but when those darn machines come back from the future, we will need to set aside our differences and unite for the sake of humanity :
(to be continued…)
Yes, I’m talking about the Indian Elections, a ridiculously massive political event where close to a billion people cast their votes to elect 543 members into the lower house (Lok Sabha) of the parliament. In other words, it’s that time when the world’s largest democracy chooses its leader, the Prime Minister of India. The results are out, and there is much to discuss, debate and ponder over. Did we as a nation do the right thing by bringing BJP into power with an overwhelming majority? Did we lose the chance of voting into power, a group of honest, educated, hard-working folks from the AAP? Does the lack of a sizable opposition bide well for passing laws and legislation quickly, or is it susceptible to introduce hegemonistic domination?
At this point, I thought I’d just take a step back from the nitty gritties of socio-politic-economic debates and look at the bigger picture. As cliched as it may sound, the biggest winner of this term’s general elections has been Democracy. Living 10,000 miles away from my home country, my window to what’s been happening there has mainly been through social media. And I must say that the excitement and frenzy on Facebook and Twitter has been extremely overwhelming, the kinda craziness that I’ve only seen before with Cricket and Bollywood. Arvind Kejriwal vs Narendra Modi just replaced Shah Rukh Khan vs Aamir Khan and India vs Pakistan. Take a deep breath and let this thought sink in…For once, it seemed like we gave politics as much importance as we did to Cricket. The moment Rahul Gandhi memes replaced Ravindra Jajeda memes, you know that politics has won the popularity game.
Five years ago, when most of my friends and I turned into legal voters, a handful of us ended up casting our votes. To be honest, no one really cared about politics. There was a collective sentiment that voting was a waste of time, and we were better off without exercising our democratic privilege. Fast-forward 5 years and I can’t think of anyone in my friends’ circle, who’s currently in India and has not voted.
People have passionately debated, made foolish claims, indulged in mud-slinging…friends became enemies, enemies became friends. At one point it did seem like the entire Indian social web was divided into two camps - one that supported the BJP (hashtag NaMo!) and the other that supported Arvind Kejriwal’s band of democratic heroes (hashtag AAP!). There is only one thing in the world worse than a bad opinion, and that’s having no opinion. And this time, people had an opinion and they stood by it, and they voted for it.
When I went to India this December and hung out with my buddies, invariably all our discussions ended up getting back to politics. One could argue that we were older and wiser now, but this came as a surprise for someone like me, who had absolutely no interest in politics before. How and why this “political enlightenment” came about…I’m not sure. Maybe years of political scams and incompetence set people’s blood to boil or maybe it was the Jan Lokpal Movement and the Aam Aadmi Party’s revolution. Either way, I get a feeling that the youth (or at least the urban youth) of this country is politically more empowered now. And that means the cohort that’ll have a political influence for the longest duration of time, will exercise that political influence. I might be in premature dreamland, but honestly, it does feel like real democracy has overthrown dynastic pseudo-democracy.
It remains to be seen whether the Modi Sarkaar will live up to its hype or not. But one thing’s certain, if they don’t do well, there is a distinct possibility that they could be overthrown in favor of a new government that promises to do better things. I hope that this is just a start to a never-ending democratic wave of optimism.
There are very few Hollywood directors out there who’ve defined and crafted their own genre of movies, a genre so unique that when you watch their films, you’d instantly know who made them. I might be making a far-fetched claim here given that I’ve only had the chance to see a couple of his movies, but they are enough to convince me of this fact. They may not be the best in the world, but Wes Anderson’s movies have that visually creative style of storytelling that simply captures my imagination and leaves me spellbound.
To cut a long story short, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a spectacular movie. It’s a heart-warming (and sometimes, heart-wrenching), whimsical tale about the adventurous escapades of a hotel concierge and a lobby boy. The plot oscillates between being ridiculous and funny, to intelligent and witty in a supremely colorful and artistic setting. Given that the cast is embarrassingly star-studded (Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Adrian Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton and not to forget, Tony Revolori - the new kind on the block), it doesn’t come as much of surprise that the acting performances in the film are top-notch. But what I like best about the movie is its ingenious narration, a story within a story within a story (don’t worry it’s not really a spoiler) told in silly, whimsical words. After I saw the movie, I thought to myself, “If only I could craft such a fun, witty, creative tale like that…”.
The ratings don’t lie either. So, go watch the movie if you haven’t done so already!
Fun Fact - Turns out that Wes Anderson’s cinematic career has been heavily influenced by Satyajit Ray. Apparently, one of his previous movies, Darjeeling Limited was dedicated to India’s greatest cinematic genius. Well, it’s time to add that movie to my to-watch queue!
Tomatometer - 77%
Audience - 46%
IMDB - 6.4
I’m not a huge fan of movies with religious themes - they either end up being too preachy or they end up being too radical, almost making it look as if they were made to prove a religious point of some sort. But given that this well-renowned biblical story was being brought to the big screen by the same guy who made cult movies like Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain and Black Swan to name a few, I must admit I was moderately thrilled at the prospect of watching it. And besides, Russell Crowe would never agree to star in a bad movie right? (ahem…Man With the Iron Fists…ahem)
Though the movie starts off slowly with limited action and weird scene transitions making it look like a badly made documentary, it eventually picks up pace and builds into a emotion-packed and riveting performance. At moments like these you are reminded of the spectacular acting prowess of people like Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly (Emma Watson was okay too, but I wasn’t really paying attention to her acting :P). With their powerful personalities on screen, they make the viewers ponder over philosophical questions about morality, faith and goodness and sin. Given that the plot is fairly well-known - The “Creator” (the movie never mentions the word “God”) speaks to Noah and tells him that a great deluge would rid the world of all the sinners, and that Noah should build a vessel to save all the innocent souls - there was little room for creativity and it was super easy to make terrible blunders. Yet the movie turned out to be wholesome and fulfilling in a way, the kind of movie that you feel was well worth your time and money. When I think about it now, the movie also felt like a good moral story, the kind of movie that you don’t necessarily want your kids to watch, but really hope that they do, at some point in their lives.
Although this isn’t one of those movies specifically made for its visual effects (it’s more of a poignant, thought provoking drama), there are certain scenes in the movie that make you gasp and wonder - especially the wonderful time-lapse sequence that shows the evolution of the world as we know it, from the big bang to the first oceanic life forms, to reptiles, mammals and then to Adam and Eve. Uhh…wait a second, did I just say the word “Evolution” along with the words “Adam and Eve”? Yup, you heard it right. I guess these are some of the creative liberties that Aronofsky and co have taken in transitioning this biblical story to the big screen. Understandably, many religious groups were annoyed (because it didn’t accurately re-tell the story in the Bible). It was also banned in the Islamic world because Islam forbids portrayal of prophets (and Noah was considered to be a prophet). Some atheists and agnostics were also pissed because the movie ultimately showed that the ideology that believed in the Creator won over the ideology that believed that man is the controller of his own fate. Oh well, no wonder the audience ratings are on the lower side :/
But if you are not a stakeholder in this age old man vs God vs religion debate, you would enjoy the movie as a good Hollywood production. If you are, well, all I can say is that you’ll certainly have some feelings after you finish watching the movie.
Living in a city as culturally vibrant as San Francisco, one often forgets that there is an enchanting world of natural beauty just at the doorstep of this fantastic city. All you need to do is to go across the Golden Gate Bridge, and all of a sudden you leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind and step into this garden of eden with rolling green hills, tranquil lakes and tall redwood trees kissing the sky. It’s astonishing sometimes to think about how San Francisco would’ve looked like a couple of hundred years ago, before the first Spanish settlers arrived. Frisco would’ve been a dense, lush forest of coastal redwood trees, where the Miwok peoples, draped in their bearskin robes, would’ve fished, farmed and lived a life in harmony with nature. When you travel north of the Golden Gate, you kind of get a glimpse of how that world would’ve looked like, though, you would still have to let your imaginations run wild to forget the power stations, the water pumping facilities, and the trashcans full of Clif Bar wrappers all around you.
I love the great outdoors. I love the prospect of finding myself lost in the pristine wilderness. At the same time, I’m a wimp. I would probably not survive even a day if left alone in the wild. So I try my best to find a group where there’s at least someone who’s an expert at all things nature, and leave my best judgment in their hands. Thankfully, I know one such person, and I grabbed hold of the opportunity to embark on an adventurous 6 mile hike to Mt. Tamalpais (meaning The Land of the Tamal people, in Spanish), a mountain or a hill depending on where you come from, in Marin County, about 20 odd miles North of San Francisco.
Like many points of elevation in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, Mt Tamalpais was a result of two equally matched mortal enemies constantly engaged in a sumo wrestling match - geologists often refer to those guys as the North American and the Pacific tectonic plates. The East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais (or Mt Tam, as it’s lovingly called by the locals), which was the one we hiked to, stands at about 2,574 feet in height. That doesn’t seem like a big enough number on paper, but it’s enough to give you spectacular views of the Bay Area.
We started our hike at a trailhead that was at around 1,200 feet and made our way steadily up the slope of the hill, through winding rocky trails, across a couple of rickety wooden bridges, over a few tiny rivulets, atop a series of steps, until we reached the summit of the peak. The hike itself wasn’t too tiring, but it was enough to produce a burst of endorphins (apparently) in my head to make the vista at the top even more enjoyable.
The view from the top is just absolutely amazing. You can see the frigid waters of the Pacific rush into the Bay under the shimmering red colors of the Golden Gate Bridge. Far in the distance, you can make out the triangular facade of the Transamerica Pyramid, the TV tower atop Mt Sutro, a tiny blob of fortified land that prisoners like Al Capone called home back in the day, the silver fronds of the Bay Bridge with vehicles snaking across to the East Bay and beyond. Shifting your eyes eastward, you can see the huge green blob of Angel Island, an uninhabited island that once served as the Immigration and quarantine facility, much like Ellis Island of New York. On a clear day, you can also catch a glimpse of the distant Sierras, a formidable mountain range, once a death trap for migrants travelling to California by road, now a popular winter sports destination. To your North, you can see the vast expanse of rolling green hills and distant vineyards of Napa and Sonoma. (Picturize that famous Windows XP wallpaper in your head). And to the west lies the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, stretching far beyond the horizon.
Hiking a good couple of miles up to the summit is definitely worth it. Or, you could drive to the top. That works too. But none of this could ever be as exciting as the Gravity Car, an open aired carriage, pulled by a steam locomotive going up, and pushed by the laws of gravity, going down. If you happened to be a citizen of the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you would’ve gotten the opportunity to ride this one of a kind wooden rollercoaster. Costing a dollar for the round trip, the Gravity Car would take you from downtown Mill Valley (which you would get to after taking a short ferry ride from the Ferry Building in SF), all the way to the summit of Mt Tam, where a tavern would await you for an evening full of drinking and dancing, after which you would be brought down by the same Gravity Car back to Mill Valley. Ahh, the good old days of inebriated folks on wooden roller coasters!
Unfortunately, like with other historical things, the railroad and the tavern were consumed by fire of some sort leaving behind a small museum and a bunch of information boards where I gathered all this information from. I did want to ask about the per-capita throw up ratio for the Gravity Car ride, to this kind old lady who was volunteering at the museum, but I refrained from doing so, not wanting to create contribute another stereotype about Indian people being curious about vomit statistics to an existing prejudice about every single Indian being born and raised in a call center. As the kind old lady told us in a beautifully innocent way, “Hey, better to be in San Jose than on the phone in India.”
Though we did think of riding the Gravity Car down (all it needed was a good hard shove to push it across the edge of the cliff), we ended up choosing the safer and more legitimate approach of retracing our steps back to the trailhead. Once we were back at the parking lot, we decided to replenish our hard spent calories on a delightful and sumptuous Indian feast. Even in a place buried in the midst of a redwood forest with large mansions that could only be afforded by the likes of Larry Ellison, we managed to find an Indian restaurant that was as similarly priced as any other Indian restaurant in the city. Prabh (the lack of that vowel at the end continues to tingle my curiosity) Indian Kitchen had a fancy decor, a calm ambiance, and pretty tasty food.
We milled about in downtown Mill Valley a little bit (excuse the pun), before we headed back to the cozy confines of the city that I currently call home.
There are only a limited few books out there in the world that can clench you in their ideologies, possess you with their concepts and leave behind a mind numbing wake as you flip the last page of the book. I had finished reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray a few weeks ago, but the impression the book created on me is not going to fade away any time soon. Dorian Gray’s transformation continues to scare the living daylights out of me.
No matter what I write, I would still do injustice to this one of a kind literary masterpiece. Quite literally, one of a kind, because this was Oscar Wilde’s only novel.
I bet most people are acquainted with Dorian Gray’s “story”, thanks to the popularity of the tale and its proliferation in popular culture (read: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). I sort of knew the “concept” of the book - the protagonist stays forever youthful and untarnished, while a portrait of his bears the brunt of his actions and the flow of time. However, the book is much more than that. What it is really, is a brilliant commentary on the morality of mankind and the elusive nature of ephemeral qualities like beauty and youth. Through Dorian Gray, the individual, and Dorian Gray, the portrait, and the select cast of other powerful characters, Wilde juxtaposes conflicting feelings of love and hate, greed and generosity, indulgence and detachment. But never in the whole book does it get preachy. When you think deeply about it, you realize that it’s just reality, plain and simple truth presented before you in its bare naked form.
From a literary perspective, this book is a true gem. Every single line I read felt quotable - written in a calligraphic hand, framed in an exquisite wooden frame and hung on the living room wall, next to the fireplace - kinda quotable. What makes it even better is that the tale is told in an exciting, fast-paced, and often heart-stopping plot. For a book that delves deep into the moral corruption of the human soul, its language is surprisingly devoid of the things that we think of when we think about moral corruption - rape, drug addiction, inhuman cruelty etc. I think it hits you at a much more deeper level…It’s not something I could explain in words. You’d have to read it and feel it yourselves.
The way society treated this genius saddens my heart sometimes. Perhaps, if Oscar Wilde had lived amongst us in our time and age, which is definitely more liberal and respectful of human rights than the Victorian Gothic literary era, I wonder if he would’ve written many more novels…
A couple of weekends ago, I experienced one of the most exhilarating moments in my life. Never would I have imagined that a group of talented people, on their own free will, would interview me about a book that I had written. Thanks to the Book Club, I along with my supremely talented co-authors got a taste of how an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) session feels like. Over a span of a couple of hours on a exciting Saturday night (relaxed Sunday morning in India), we got to answer a wide variety of interesting, thought-provoking and tricky questions about our plot, characters, how we wrote the book and got it published etc.
I was really glad that some of you guys were able to participate in it, and I also know that there were others who wanted to but couldn’t make it. So, for those of you who missed it, here’s a summary of the AMA:
Was it difficult to collaborate across timezones? How did you manage?
Yup, collaboration was not easy. For starters we did spend a non-trivial amount of time deciding when we would meet. Google came to our rescue! We literally drafted our entire story arc on google docs over multiple google hangout sessions.
Were you together in college? Did you’ll meet in person at any time? Or was it totally through google?
We went to college together. And indeed the initial idea was drafted during one of our numerous “vehla” sessions at the cafeteria over a cup of chai.
Managing egos is the most difficult part in a team , How did you guys manage to keep this in check while coming up with this wonderful book ? Weren’t there any tiffs about the preference each character should get ?
You guessed it, we did have a lot of arguments and disagreements while constructing the story. I think we managed to work through them because we were committed to finishing the book and getting it published. And yes, it helped that we were friends. That meant that we could hurl abuses at each other without offending the person
I’m very curious about the plot? Was that also a collaborative effort as well ?
We made a plot while sitting in different time zones. So imagine how terrific the fun was, when one was pining for his morning coffee and the other was thirsty for his evening gin.
OK the main question (and don’t hold back trade secrets) How did you land up with a publisher?
We’ll be frank about it. There were no casting couches :P
Coming from an industry where things happen at a breakneck pace, the process of finding a publisher seemed painfully slow. Having no contacts in the industry, we basically sent our humble applications to all publishers who we thought might be interested in our book . Needless to say, we had a lot of failures along the way, until our application was accepted by Good Times Books. By some stroke of luck, we were connected to a publisher who was as excited as us, if not more, to take a bold risk and venture in to the Indian Sci Fi market.
Do you think Indian market is mature enough for genres like science fiction and fantasy?
Absolutely. What the Indian market needs now is a solid science fiction and fantasy book that people can easily relate to. With TPoT, we wanted to do to the SFF genre what Chetan Bhagat did to the “college romance” genre and what Amish Tripathi did to the “mythological fiction” genre. I’m not sure if we succeeded or not, but we really do hope that our book inspires other budding Indian authors to break into this wonderful and fascinating genre. The thing that gives us confidence is that the market that enjoys the college romance genre also enjoys watching hollywood sci fi movies. So, if they get a compelling, relatable and easy to read sci fi book, the trend is sure to change.
What (kind of) research went in it (to your novel)?
We did a lot of reading on topics ranging from concentration camps to carcinogens. Most research started from Wikipedia, but ended up in a bunch of esoteric places on the Internet.
In my experience, genre fiction authors have it tougher than say, literary fiction authors, or even self-help, romance etc authors. Firstly, the notion that ‘Indian readers are not yet ready for genre fiction’ in itself is fiction - many voracious readers have grown up reading the best from outside India…so the benchmark is quite high. Do you think publishers need to have a different strategy and vision when it comes to genre fiction in India? One cannot sell a cookery book and a book about alien invasion in the same way.
Indeed, the few publishers who took the time to give us feedback on why they rejected our application, told us in one way or the other that “Indian readers are not yet ready for Indian Sci Fi.” I think that notion stems out of the conservative nature of the publishing industry, who feel scared of moving away from the formulaic ways of success, especially in this current day and age, where self-published e-books threaten their very foundations. I can understand their viewpoints, but then again, without risk, there can be no change. I also wonder if it stems from an erroneous opinion that Indians cannot write good quality science fiction. I think there are a lot of talented authors out there who are just waiting to break into the scene.
So do you feel that the doors have opened for wider now - specially after TPOT?
I think writing a novel is always going to be hard, be it your first book, or your tenth. But having released our first book, we now know that we are capable of writing something that others might enjoy reading. And we now have some “contacts” in the industry ;)
I’d like to know where do you see yourselves going from here. What’s next? Another collaboration?
Well, we definitely will write sequel to TPoT. In our own obsessive heads, TPoT is actually a trilogy! The three of us are also working on our own independent projects as well!
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Does the main characters of the novel resemble you three….are the characters of Phil, Arty and Siv drawn from you guys?
Three of us have parts of us in each of the characters. We just exploited specific nuances and made individual characters out of them. So together they represent humanity. *<teary eyed>*
There is a history of Arty and Phil. Why is it that only Siv was left out from having a history that propelled him into his present? Was it a conscious decision or the story just grew that way?
Because scientists are boring? Haha just kidding. All three characters have their reasons for ending up in the forest, just that their back-stories have been told differently.
All the guys have the same vision when they wear Xonas bracelet? Why? History is not only about genocide or holocaust…why not other incidences ?
Amongst the plethora of instances that Xona observed during her sojourn (and/or extracted from the Earth’s memories), a few of them had a greater impact on her than others. And the impression of that impact was preserved in the Sekha’i (the bracelet). When three humans tried on the bracelet, the memories preserved in the bracelet made a subconscious impression on their minds.
Will the sequel explore more theories related to alien theories? Will Xona get a love interest?
We definitely will dig deeper into the Gucutep (alien) psychology. I can’t reveal too much about her potential love affair(s).
You claim in your book that the human race was created by aliens. Is that something you believe in?
Our personal beliefs may have little to do what the narrator and characters of the story think. Because they are lost in their own alternate reality, while we’re here, chatting on FB on an idle sunday afternoon. Going by Darwinian evolution, we all emerged as blue green algae from the right cosmic soup on some crazy day billions of years ago. But the alien theory is kind of more exciting. Yes, and of course. There is always God. Or luck. Or chance. Or probability. That governs everything. From the spatial/temporal distribution of electrons around a nucleus to the likelihood of a girl smiling back at you.
There comes a time in your life (multiple times if you are lucky) where a book you read will transform the way you think about yourself and everything around you. I say it is a chance encounter because the impact of any work of fiction is a product of the quality of the book and the time in your life you read it. I must say that I’ve been extremely lucky, lucky to have book loving friends and family who’ve introduced me to certain books at the right times in my life.
When I was 5, my Mother would tell me stories about magical lands, of wicked witches, fiery fiends and courageous children. When I turned 9, she introduced me to world of Enid Blyton, where kids of my age would solve mysteries that the local police couldn’t, explore desolate castles on idyllic islands, and run into exotic crown princes from foreign lands. When I turned 12, my Father gifted me a shiny new book whose cover featured a bespectacled young boy with a lightning shaped scar on his forehead standing in front of bright red train. Apparently, that book was gaining popularity in the Western World and my Father thought that it might be something that could satiate my ever growing appetite. Turned out that that book started a love affair that would last for 7 years.
When I was 15, my Brother entrusted me with a nice, fat book about the Elves of Rivendell, the Dwarves of Moria, the Orcs of Mordor and the Men of Gondor, a book that single-handedly shaped my imaginations and convinced me that the human mind was capable of creating fantastical worlds out of thin air. When I turned 18, during the prime of my enthusiasm for all things science, one of my good friends introduced me to a canon of works that blended cutting edge technology with fast paced thrills. In the next few years, I would end up voraciously reading every book that Michael Crichton ever wrote. When I turned 22, a stage of life where romance (or the thought of it) was at the forefront, one of my great literary friends introduced me to the Great Gatsby, a book that I would still hold dear to my heart. When I turned 25, that very same friend introduced me to the vainglorious world of Dorian Gray, which taught me the joys and sorrows of youth just when I was at the cusp of transforming into the permanence of adulthood.
Truth be told, I wasn’t always lucky. There were plenty of anachronisms throughout my life. I should’ve read Ender’s Game when I was 12 instead of 24; perhaps, I would’ve turned out to be a different human being than what I am today. I should’ve read Catcher in the Rye when I was 16 rather than 23, for I would’ve identified with Holden Caulfield much better. I should’ve read 1984 when I was 20+ rather than at a tender age of 14, when world politics wasn’t a sensitive enough issue for me.
Oh well, what is past is past. The ships of Narnia have sailed past me, the compasses of gold have eluded my hands, never to return (or maybe until I’m old enough to be a child again). All I can do now is to look forward to worlds of infinite jest and perceivable doors, of fear and loathing, of crime and punishment.