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Meeting Abraham

We regularly attend the Hanoi International Fellowship Sunday morning service at Intercontinental. As part of his sermon series on ‘The Great I Am’, Pastor Jacob, who is of Dutch origin, was recently preaching on John 8:48-58 where Jesus makes one of his ‘I Am’ statements (v58) when he told us about an old Dutch custom.

According to Dutch tradition and custom, when a man turns 50 he is said to have ‘seen’ Abraham. In the same manner a woman has ‘seen’ Sarah (the Patriarch’s wife) when she turns 50. A life-size doll or figure of an old man or woman (representing Abraham/Sarah) is also usually placed on the front yard to announce the fact. The custom stems from verse 57 where the Jews sarcastically tell Jesus, “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!”.

I have never been big on birthdays. I don’t specifically remember my 10th, 20th, or even 30th birthdays. I do remember the days leading up to my 40th and thinking that I should put my thoughts to paper on such a momentous occasion. But I never did get round to it and I don’t even specifically remember how I spent that day. Today, as the days, weeks and months creep ever closer to the day, later this year, when I will be ‘meeting’ Abraham, I am again somewhat obsessed with putting my thoughts to paper as it were.

Even as I write these lines, I can hardly believe that I am now about to complete my half century. It seems just yesterday that, after completing my high school and what was then called ‘Pre-University’ in Churachandpur, my hometown, I left the comfort of my family for the first time to pursue further studies in Imphal. As I’ve written in an earlier blog, I only recently realized that the day I left home for higher studies in Imphal was the day I really left ‘home’. I never really came back ‘home’ after that. I realize now that, once I left for college, the ties that bound me to my parents and immediate family had started to stretch and, though they will never break, nevertheless, the process of my becoming an individual separate from my identity as the son of my mother and father which was not so pronounced as a school-going kid had begun in earnest as I tried, in my own clumsy way, to forge a future for myself.

When we were children, all married people were ‘old’. Married people with kids were even older and those with kids in colleges were definitely so old as to be over the hill and practically of not much consequence as far we were concerned. Now I have become one of them with both my kids in college. But, as I told a friend recently, I still listen to the music I grew up with; Deep Purple, CCR, Jim Reeves, etc. – some on cassettes which are older than my son – and in my mind I’m still in my late twenties, or maybe thirties, at the most. I know for a fact that I am now seen as an ‘old man’ with a thinning hairline (to put it mildly) and, perhaps, as someone over the hill or about to go over the hill. But, despite the many stumbles and falls along the way, what a climb it has been!

As I sit here reminiscing, my peaceful childhood and schooldays flash before my eyes in a blur. Those long, lazy summer days spent fishing in the small stream that ran near our village or ‘hunting’ birds in the surrounding hills have now gone forever, never to return. Those were the days when No. 4 was just a number and not the terrifying drug that would forever ruin the lives of so many of our youth and their families. Looking back, I now realize that my childhood and schooldays was a period just before our ‘patriots’ with guns took over our lives and society. It was a blessed time to be a child. It was the lull before the storm that was to soon blow over our beloved land and society.

I remember the first time I landed in Delhi in the summer of 1985 from the cool climes of my beloved hills and how it felt like stepping into a furnace as I stepped out of the plane. I remember the morning rush hours in Delhi, clinging to DTC buses trying to make it to office in time which, when I first joined, was in Chanakyapuri. I remember Chanakya Cinema Hall, next to our office, which, in those days, only showed English movies. For more than a year, I probably watched each and every movie that they screened. For a few hours at least, constant thoughts of my girl and family back home would recede to the background while I lost myself in some Hollywood fantasy.

I remember our first posting in Morocco and that lonely June night more than twenty years ago outside the delivery room of Clinique Tour Hassan in Rabat as I paced alone in the corridor awaiting the arrival of my son. I remember the small boy, all smiles and waving, walking towards his first classroom. I remember him shyly clinging to me as we went through the admission process in his first international school, the American School of Milan. I remember sitting in my car late at night waiting to pick him up from a friend’s house in Maputo, Mozambique as he emerged laughing with his classmates from the Maputo International School, all drenched and wet from a dunk in their swimming pool at their farewell party. I remember how proud I was on his Graduation Day at St. Mary’s in Tokyo, where he played the guitar and sang on stage with his good friend Nigel at the drums.

I remember the day he left us for university, knowing that the time had finally come for him to leave us and reach for his own dreams. As Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors once wrote, “When they leave for college, they never really come back”. I remember the long emails and longer telephone talks from faraway Japan during the first few months as he struggled to fit into his new life. I remember him walking towards us as he got off the plane in Narita on our last summer in Tokyo. Home for the summer holidays, dressed in an all-black outfit, dark glasses with his long hair in a ponytail, I could hardly believe that this fine looking young man was my son as I hugged him. I still remember the book he carried that day. ‘The Stone Boy and Other Stories’, a book written by Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. In the car, on our way home, he told me it was an interesting book which he’d carried to read on the flight. The first thing that struck me about the book was the author’s nationality. Those were the days when we were awaiting news of where we’d be headed after our stint in Tokyo and, at that moment, with a book about Vietnam written by a Vietnamese in my hands, the first thing that came to my mind was that surely this was a sign that our next port of call could be Hanoi. I mean, out of all the books that are out there, what were the odds that my son, whose favorite authors include Poe, would be reading a book written by a Vietnamese of all people! And, sure enough, a few weeks later, we learned that we would indeed be headed for Hanoi. But that’s another story.

Then I recall the October evening my beautiful daughter was born in Delhi. I remember how, this time surrounded by good friends and relatives, we jumped with joy outside the delivery room in Veeranwali International Hospital leaving the ward boys wondering why we were so happy at the birth of a girl. Little did they know. I recall how blessed I felt, looking at her beautiful sleeping face that October evening when they finally brought her out. I remember how determined and independent-minded she has always been. Never once did we have to remind her about homework and how she simply refused to be tutored, preferring to study and find out everything herself and still always manage to be among the top in all her classes. I have probably learned more from her than she from me.

I remember how she’d never really care how she was dressed till suddenly one day, somewhere along the line, she’d go only for that particular dress or style or that particular pair of shoes, or rather, boots. And suddenly, just like that, I had become the father of this beautiful and extremely talented young woman. Somewhere along the line, without any tutor, she learned to play the guitar and piano all by herself and, as her talents manifested themselves one by one, we learned that she had also become a singer, and a damn good one at that with quite a number of followers on her youtube channel and one of her songs even garnering more than 12,000 ‘hits’. How proud I was attending some of the events in Tokyo where she got invited to sing on stage. I was probably the proudest parent on her Graduation Day at Seisen International School whose alumni include the Empress of Japan.

With her brother gone, we’d dreamt of her being with us till at least she finished her college education but at this moment, my poor baby’s been left adrift with her college in Hanoi suddenly closing down. And I find myself staring at the prospect of her leaving us within the next few months as she also goes off to pursue further studies away from us in our present posting. I console myself that God has other plans for her and for us and that she will finally be able to be independent and free to pursue her own destiny. As I count the days she has left with us and the day of my ‘meeting’ with Abraham draws ever closer, the day also draws nearer when it will be just the two of us again. And, just like that, my mind drifts back to that hot day in June almost twenty three years ago when we made our vows. And here I am, one cycle of life about to be completed, and I find myself standing on the cusp of a new cycle as I count down to the day I will finally meet Abraham.

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The Thunderbolt Kid

I was introduced to Bill Bryson by my daughter when she brought home “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” from her school library. It was/is probably the most hilarious memoir I have read. I have since bought and gone on to read quite a few of his other books, each one as good, or even better, than the last. From ‘A Walk in the Woods’, ‘Neither Here Nor There’, ‘Down Under’, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ and ‘Notes From A Big Country’ to ‘Notes From A Small Island’, which I am currently reading, Bryson’s particular brand of irreverent-but-at-the-same-time-serious writing/humour has had me in splits for many an hour.

Since I’ve not updated my blog for quite a few months, I thought I might as well share a few lines from the latest Bryson I am reading. These are lines from ‘Notes From A Small Island’ which, in 2003, in conjunction with World Book Day, was chosen by voters in UK as the book that best sums up British identity and the state of the nation. The lines I am sharing have nothing to do with the main subject of the book, which is an account of his trip around Britain and his hilarious observations of the British people, their habits and their idiosyncrasies. It made me wish there was someone like him amongst us Mizos who could write about our own sometimes self-centred, self-righteous, sanctimonious society in his typical irreverent manner.

As I said, these lines have nothing to do with the subject of the book and, in fact, came in abruptly in the midst of his description of life in rural Britain. A sort of philosophical rambling, seemingly unrelated to the subject, but somehow blending into the narration. But I digress. So here goes:

The way I see it, there are three reasons never to be unhappy.

First, you were born. This in itself is a remarkable achievement. Did you know that each time your father ejaculated (and frankly he did it a lot) he produced roughly twenty-five million spermatozoa –enough to repopulate Britain every two days or so? For you to have been born, not only did you have to be among the few batches of sperm that had even a theoretical chance of prospering – in itself quite a long shot – but you then had to win a race against 24,999,999 or so other wriggling contenders, all rushing to swim the English Channel of your mother’s vagina in order to be the first ashore at the fertile egg of Boulogne, as it were. Being born was easily the most remarkable achievement of your whole life. And think: you could just as easily have been a flatworm.

Second, you are alive. For the tiniest moment in the span of eternity you have the miraculous privilege to exist. For endless eons you were not. Soon you will cease to be once more. That you are able to sit right now in this never-to-be-repeated moment, reading this book, eating bon-bons, dreaming about hot sex with that scrumptious person from accounts, speculatively sniffing your armpits, doing whatever you are doing – just existing – is really wondrous beyond belief.

Third, you have plenty to eat, you live in a time of peace and ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree’ will never be number one again.

How can you not love this guy 🙂

Reading

There was a time when I used to read basically everything I could lay my hands on. From western/cowboy writers like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, Oliver Strange (the ‘Sudden’ series) to Harold Robbins, James Hadley Chase, Mario Puzo, Leon Uris, Robert Ludlum…… they were my constant companions. I recall once, during the height of my ‘reading phase’, making a list of all the books I read. Like most things connected to a ‘phase’, the list-making did not last for more than a month or so. But, as far as I can recall, the list added up to roughly five novels a week. No wonder I never really went beyond passing grades in school.

Apart from the time it took to read the novels (though I’m a fast reader), I look back and wonder at how, after finishing one novel, one always managed to get a fresh/new book/novel. The wonder of it all is that I do not remember having purchased any of the books I read in those days. We would just pass on the books we had read to the next person in exchange for an unread book. The other person would then pass on the book to another in exchange for another book and so on the system went. That my father and uncles and one of my aunties were great readers helped because I had a good source from where I could get books to exchange with other readers. Westerns were a great passion then and Louis L’Amour was (still is) my favorite western writer. I don’t know where my supply came from, but I think I managed to read each and every one of his westerns. Then there were those cowboy comics (‘Cowboy Adventure Library’, I think they were called), the war comics (‘War Picture Library’), the super heroes, Phantom/Mandrake/Flash Gordon (Indrajal Comics) and JS magazine which I religiously collected and read till it suddenly stopped. Then came Sun Magazine (weekly) with its posters of our various pop/rock idols which we religiously collected and pasted on our mud-walled rooms….

Reading, for me, has always been in phases. For some reason. There have been long periods, lasting from months to years even, when I don’t read anything apart from newspapers/magazines and then, suddenly, something triggers my ‘reading phase’ and I’m off on one of my reading trips where I jump from one book/novel to the next with hardly any break. I try to rationalize these phases by linking them to the amount of work or other preoccupations that I have in hand. Though my reading phases are linked to my office work and other schedules perforce, there are times when no amount of work or other preoccupations can pry me away from some particular book.

Then, a month after we landed in Tokyo, we discovered the Salvation Army which operates a huge ‘recycled’ (as they call second-hand/used materials here) store every Saturday from 9AM to 2PM. The store or shop is a huge hall half the size of a football field which opens at 9 sharp. People line up from around 8 in the morning to lay hands on the best bargains in town from TV sets, CDs, dresses, shoes, furniture, refrigerators, antiques, musical instruments to books and anything you can imagine which are sold at throw-away prices. Expats form the majority of the crowd with a sizeable number of locals as well as diplomats and, last week, I even saw an Ambassador browsing through the many offerings on sale. We have also become regulars at the shop, having already joined the diehard band of ‘Salvation Army Addicts’. The book section which boasts a very good collection of English books and novels is my favorite section along with their collection of CDs.

With one of my reading phases having been triggered by the Salvation Army shop, I have had the pleasure of going through a number of very good books during the past two-three months. Today being the first day of 2008 seems a good time to list some of the books I finally managed to lay my hands on and read in 2007:

The Grapes of Wrath & Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck made for enjoyable reading but somehow seemed dated and left me befuddled (if that’s the right word) at various points while reading them. But I can now boast that I have finally read these great novels written by the Nobel prize winning writer. Speaking of Nobel-prize winning writers, I also read VS Naipaul’s ‘Literary Occasions – Essays’ and fully enjoyed it. I had read his series on India (India: A Wounded Civilization) many years back which so precisely analyzed India and the Indian psyche and which I regard as one of the best books written on India. His ‘A Bend In The River’ was a novel that I stumbled on at a flea market in Maputo. Loosely based on real events in Mozambican history, it was another of Naipaul’s novels that I enjoyed.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger was another ‘known’ book that I finally read. Frankly, I just about managed to go through it and it left me wondering what the book was all about. I also finally got a copy of The Shogun by James Clavell. As gripping as his other novels like The Taipan, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, based as it is on Japanese history.

The Heart of the Matter, a collection of original short stories written by various writers from NE India including Mizo, Manipuri, Khasi and Assam writers translated into English was a true revelation and thoroughly enjoyable, proving for one that there is no dearth of talented writers (and translators) in the NE. I also finally got a copy of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray. Very insightful and made for an enjoyable read but I got sidetracked somewhere in the middle and haven’t finished it yet. Which, I suppose, means I would have to start from the beginning again to really benefit from the book. Because, in the meantime, I can’t for the life of me recall any of the advice the good doctor had very painstakingly put in the book for better relations between men and women. Further proof that men are from Mars? J

I also finally managed to read The Zahir, a novel by Paulo Coelho. After having been bombarded with recommendations of his previous novels such as The Alchemist from some friends, I found the pace and storyline somewhat of a letdown. Maybe I was expecting too much, I don’t know.

And these are some of the goodies awaiting me: Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, East is West by John Delp, The Art of War by Sun Tzu…..

Happy New Year everyone, and happy reading.

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