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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 🙂

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Prelude to Okinawa

This weekend I had the chance and privilege of returning, after a little more than a year, to my favourite place in Japan – Okinawa.

Despite the lingering winter chill, the sun was up bright and sunny on Saturday morning as I rushed to catch my early morning flight from Haneda airport. By the time I had figured out how to operate the ticket machine (or whatever it is called) and obtained my ticket, I was already beginning to regret my decision to go fully suited and tie-d up so that I could rush straight to my appointment without having to change. I greatly looked forward to changing into my jeans and exploring whatever I could of the southernmost part of Japan. But I first had to contend with the dreary 3 hours I would be spending in the air to get there.

By the time I found my seat and sat down, I could feel my stomach rumbling because, in my rush to get up and dress up, I had barely managed a cup of tea for breakfast. From past experience I already knew that, apart from a single (half-filled) paper cup of juice/coffee/oolan tea/soft drink, there would be no breakfast on flight to look forward to, even if it was breakfast time. I remember my first domestic flight in Japan when I kept waiting for the snacks which never came after that measly half-cup of juice. Unlike in India, and all other places that I have flown in, they don’t serve snacks on domestic flights no matter how long the flight is except in Business/First class. And you don’t even have the option of buying something to eat during the flight like you do on budget airlines in India. This realization only served to increase my hunger pang.

I flipped through the inflight magazine, checking the entertainment options – apart from some dreary documentary-types, all in Japanese, no movies. The only English programme available was the ‘international pops’ audio channel on Channel 6 called ‘cool cuts’ featuring a wide range of so-called hits which, in normal circumstances, you wouldn’t catch me listening to, ever. But I could see some interesting 70s numbers which included ‘I think I love you’ by the Partridge Family which sounded familiar, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ by Simon and Garfunkel and another number by Diana Ross. The programme ran for exactly an hour and would be repeated from the beginning each time it finished and in the end, counting my return trip, I ended up listening to the Partridge Family 6 times. Which, I suppose, was some sort of highlight of my trip.

And so, trying not to think of the 3 hours I would be cooped up, I settled in with the Partridge Family and a copy of Bill Bryson’s ‘Neither Here Nor There’ for company. Bill Bryson, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading his books, is one of the funniest writers around. In fact, his books should come with some sort of statutory warning (like on cigarette packets) ‘Not to be read in public’ or some such thing because they are so hilariously perceptive and funny that it takes great effort not to suddenly burst out laughing and make a spectacle of oneself in public (I had several such urges but managed to control myself and mostly just had a sort of permanent smile till the time we landed). Instead, my copy of the book only had blurbs like ‘It’s very, very funny’ (Sunday Times) and ‘Hugely funny (not snigger-snigger funny, but great-big-belly-laugh-till-you-cry funny)’ (Daily Telegraph). Seriously.

Though I felt drowsiness sweeping over me several times, I managed to keep my eyes open with Bill Bryson and David Cassidy. Another big reason was my quota of the half paper cup of juice. I once dozed off for maybe half a minute on another flight during which the air hostess managed to pass by with her tray and I ended up not having even the measly half-cup of juice that was rightfully mine. Ever since, I’ve had this feeling that the air hostesses keep an eye on me and the moment I doze off, rush to serve the one and only half-cup of juice they serve on the flights. And, ever since then, I keep an eye on their movements to make sure that I don’t get passed over when the time comes.

In between the times I had to put down the book and try to ward off sleep, I dreamed up various topics for blogs I could be writing. Such as the Eric Clapton (‘legendary guitarist, only rumored to be God’, as the publicity read) concert on 15 Feb which my son and I had been planning to attend, but could not because by the time I enquired, the tickets had long sold out. Or an account of the most exhausting thing I have ever done – climbing Mt. Fuji, and how I cursed myself for being so stupid and swearing to never, ever do it again but will probably be there again when the climbing season opens this year in August. With all the time on my hand, I actually dreamt up quite a few topics I could blog on. I remember thinking that I should write all the topics down so I could expand on them later on. But I didn’t, and here I am now, not able to recall any of them. Apart from the two above. I must really be getting old.

Hey, this is becoming really long. One of the things I have noticed lately is that I never read the really long blogs. Unless they are really interesting or well-written. Some of my earlier blogs now really make me cringe because they were so long. No wonder nobody bothered to read them. So let me call a halt right now and blog about the wondrous thing I saw, witnessed and experienced in Okinawa at a later time. Provided I remember them.

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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