Monday, October 22, 2012

What is your novella, Half a Home, about ?

"Half a Home" aspires to be "The Great NRI Novella" - a story about family relations vis-a-vis the diaspora before and after 1991 - when economic reforms revolutionized India both materially and socially. Rishi, the main character, is of an age where he is caught in between - remembering the India of old - and unable to deal with the new changes that slowly take hold. It's a story of nostalgia, naiveté and the heartbreak associated with losing one's "Imaginary Homeland". It's also a love story.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Why don't you shut up about New York Already ?!!

I'm a child of immigrants. And this city was built by immigrants and its kin. And continues to be a home for the world. That's extraordinary on many levels, besides my own very personal connection to this city.

Yes, I was born and raised here and am a proud product of its public schools. Both my parents worked for the City of New York. My father built the Roosevelt trolley in the 70s. My mother was part of the rescue efforts of 9/11.

But there is a simpler answer. New York has, and to lesser degree now, but still significantly, positioned itself in opposition to heartland America.

Things which are considered staples in the rest of the country are hardly central to NYC living. No cars and no TV needed here. You get all your entertainment on the streets, walking.  The midget on a tricycle with blue hair on the G train singing opera while juggling is a usual everyday occurrence.

In contrast to say, Ohio, there is a strong preference for the local, original, authentic mom and pops shops.  We don't like Big Box branded stores, as Wal-Mart, after all these years, still has not received approval for opening up its doors here.  We have our share of big brands, but we equally nurture and support local enterprise.  The Brooklyn Brand, focusing on the artisanal and hyper attention to detail, magnifies this trend and is in line with New York tradition.

New York is also the only major metropolitan area in the US where white people are a minority (since 1980!)  The minorities are the majority. This diversity lends itself to a city teeming with creative energy and a cosmopolitanism that's lived rather than imagined.  We're super into gay people and Jews. We are a bastion for the the historically oppressed and value difference highly.

And the diversity is much more than ethnic or related to identity, it's also ideological.  It's a city that attracts both the capitalist and the social activist. People with highly disparate world views and goals all congregate here and think this is the place to be. The place that will take them to greater heights. And they're probably right.

So all those people, those ideas and possibilities. It just makes everything go boom boom boom in your mind.

My father ended up building nuclear bunkers in Israel given his love of falafels. He got to talking to some Jews and one thing led to another and next thing he knew he was living in Tel Aviv being blind folded every morning to work.

I myself went out one night to find myself taking a flight to Namibia, a couple of months later, to fight the African Aids epidemic in the 90s.

You never know what could happen here. You meet people, you get to talking over drinks and things HAPPEN.

There are many more stories I have like this and I'm not alone, I assure you. It's kind of like one big human super computer. The city was the Internet manifested, before the Internet existed. A living breathing search engine, social network and connector. And still is ..

And then there are the other, superficial, aspects that may be superficial but add to make life pleasant and hedonistic. The food, the culture, and how the best of the best rolls through here. The competition leads to a quality that makes one often spend an enormous sum of money and think it's worth it.

Of course, the city also constantly destroys itself with its own success.  Neighborhoods get gentrified and historical landmarks are constantly under threat from over development.  Creative destruction is wired into the DNA of the city. Build it to bring it down and those very vicious and strong cycles keeps this place ...apocalyptic. A feeling that it can all come crashing down becomes slightly comforting and humbling. You take your highs and lows in stride as a result and know that neither is ever-lasting.

What most fascinates me though, is how this place is a dump in many ways, and not nice in the traditional common sensical way that Rio or Paris or anywhere else that shines and relies on its sheer inherent beauty to charm you.

New York is a glorified sewer and everyone knows it. It's an emperor without clothes, at times, and somehow creates meaning, myth and glory from what it's got. All this concrete. All this madness. It knows it cannot rest on its physical beauty so it creates its charm and a personality from the anarchy, energy and hustle.

Somehow all of its shortcomings become its strength. The dirt, the grime, the chaos, the frustration somehow become a badge of honor for people who are used to greater comforts, from wherever they come from, yet who continue to choose to masochistically live here.  You have to be warped to want to live here.  

We all question why we are here and convince ourselves that it's great. We over-sell New York, almost as a defense mechanism, in order to avoid confronting the sad truths about life. We make life extraordinary by feeling like we're a part of greatness when really, we're mortal and flawed like the rest of mankind.

But this city is a self fulfilling prophecy. And that's why it works. Somehow, confoundedly, it moves and works, in mysterious ways...

So that's my answer of why I don't shut up about New York. I've tried to provide some very objective reasons. Of course, I'm deeply biased as this place is Home for me and the one place in the world I am at peace and don't feel suicidal.  I've left for better and worse places and they all had me longing to come back and ride the subway and eat a bagel.  And I'm glad I'm here. I have a feeling I'll be here on the last night on Earth and feel perfectly content knowing I'm in the place to be.

Friday, October 05, 2012

What have been your greatest literary influences ?

It's funny. I got turned on to words as a 16 year old troubled adolescent. It was a world literature class and I hated school, my teacher, the world. I graduated in the bottom 30th percent of my class and did well on standardized exams when I felt like it but generally I felt school was one big waste of time.

I think I got caught smoking a joint in the boys bathroom or something and was given what was called "in school suspension" which was basically where they separated you and MADE you do your homework under strict supervision.

Primeval shit. But anyway. I had to read The Stranger by Albert Camus or I'd get even into deeper trouble.

So on a starry New Jersey night I started to read and had what can only be described as an outer body experience.

I read it all in one sitting through the night. I didn't sleep and said please please ! I need to go to class ! I need to talk about this ! I was so deeply moved and frightened. I thought I was the stranger. I could feel myself killing the other. The Arab or whatever it represented. I could taste the salt ocean kisses Mersault had with Marie. I could see myself accepting the benign indifference of the world.

And they let me go. And I sat in the front row. I took someone else's seat and hadn't slept so I had a delirious look. But I was ready.

And then my very boring teacher proceeded to talk about the themes and world war 2. And didn't speak to me. I wanted to know if I really was The Stranger. And if other people felt they might be too.

But nothing came of that lecture. And I remember thinking. Wait. Maybe there is more. What is this literature thing about.

And then I went looking for that same high. And I think I still continue to feel and search for that same thing now, you know. That feeling that you are out of your body. That you feel and see things in a new and transcendent way.

So to answer your question, in a circuitous manner, Albert Camus. And then came Herman Hesse and then came Dostoevsky. And finally Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The original Gabo. My namesake.

And since then I am influenced and moved by certain writers. Tolstoy and Bulgakov, for example. But it's not the same.

I'm not sure if that is because I'm older and less susceptible to the wonder of first love or what. But basically my early influences remain my current ones. The ones I look back on and want to re read and know more about.

I feel bad for people who never experienced what I experienced. It's like not having sex or something. Or the experience of a French meal.

That's why I taught literature to under privileged kids as they call them, in the inner city of New York.

The government wanted to give them skills. I wanted them to experience the pleasure and the wonder that comes from understanding who you are and what the hell you are doing here.

To this day, despite my numerous accolades and achievements. The best thing I did was turn a 15 year old on to James Baldwin.

Everything else is just gravy compared to that.