Month: May 2009

Sleepless in the city

I MAY not be in Seattle, but have been sleepless all these days. Chronically sleepless. Interminably sleepless. Terminally sleepless. It’s a malady with no cure: it refuses to alleviate, allay. No matter what I do. Sometimes, I so miss the childhood lullaby that used to put me to sleep instantly, magically. With adulthood it’s different. As with adulthood comes a certain awareness — of the world around — and certain edginess too. Adulthood brings its own set of nightmares, taking your innocence away, leaving you shorn of serenity.
There is something impatient and obstinate about self-expression — when it comes it sweeps you off your feet, leaving you inundated with countless streams of thoughts. It just needs to begin. Get started. And once it does, it knows no stopping. Becomes relentless, unstoppable.
Tonight, when I sit down — after ages — to scribble a few lines to give you a glimpse into the goings-on in my world, a fresco of fractured thoughts seeks to be healed, to be jointed, to be unified. And I don’t know how to weave the various strands of thoughts — throbbing with life — together. I would talk randomly, distractedly, haphazardly. Of many things. Of one thing in a sentence, and quite another in another. That’s how it is. That’s how it’s gotta be. Till I sharpen my gaze, regain my focus, reclaim my direction, purpose, method.
I’ve been so sleepless, it has engendered all sorts of problems. Sometimes I feel I am sleepwalking — a part of me keeps floating on the surface, while another part keeps perpetually fatigued by sleeplessness, yearning to drift off to sleep, pining to drop dead in bed. I exaggerate, of course! 
When you are sleepless for too long, it’s not long when you become listless. And laidback. And what not. You can see things happening around you, but your eyes don’t allow you to soak in the sights and sounds. Your eyelids keep drooping, you keep drifting in and out of yourself. That’s exactly how it has been for me. For long.
When you are sleep-starved, another problem that plagues you is that you can’t distinguish between dream and reality. What happens in your dreams, you assume it actually happened to you. It can create another set of complications. You know what I mean!
Even as I am writing these lines, I am wondering if I am actually doing it or is it one of those dream sequences. I pinch myself hard to reassure myself it’s all real. “It’s real. It’s real,” I utter, massaging the bruised skin of my hand.
As you sit and think, mind goes footloose, traversing strange alleys. Now, you see yourself walking down the city’s alleys, loneliness leaping at you in bustling streets, loveliness lurching at you in ugly corridors. Contradictions abound here, at every step. The city, at times, seems to be a great emptiness to me. A lovely city, but a lonely city (or a city full of loners?). Everyone seems to be constantly trying to keep the façade of happiness on their faces. Everyone seems to be living his/her life to the fullest. But whenever I look at glowing, beaming, happy faces, I don’t know why I can almost always see something sad lurking behind that veneer. Something which says, “Life is perfect, but…” It is as if I can see the imperfections of each of their lives. It is as if I can get a peek into their private pains, their daily tragedies. Each of their stories is uniquely different. And each one of them is battling with their own set of odds, constantly trying to sort their own set of things out. Isn’t it strange that even as we think we are leading the most perfect, happy and contented life, there are so many things that keep getting fucked up, every day? Relationships flounder, trust gets broken, betrayal breaks hearts, loyalty sneaks out of secret doors, faith is faced with crisis, loved ones are lost, losses inflicted. All kinds of loss — emotional, material and physical — keep staring us in our faces all the time, even as we set out to “gain” a lot, scripting one success story after another.
I keep wondering whose losses are those losses and whose gains are those gains! What do we lose actually when we lose, and what do we gain when we gain? The whole of the world’s activities seem to be a choice between loss and gain. What do we gain when we do a particular thing or what do we lose? This seems to be the only operative.
The metropolis provides you with all kinds of material. There is just so much going on. You only need eyes to see. It is a city that fascinates me immensely. I revel in its beauty, and, at the same time, get repulsed by its ugly sides. But I am never ever less fond of it. It’s a city that I would do anything for. I was not born here, but it’s a city I love, warts and all. And if there is anything called a second life, it’s here that I would like to be reborn, even if I have to spend my entire life sleepless.
It is all so surreal. I stay put at my place, resisting all urges to embrace the world outside at hours when I am so tempted — so incredibly tempted — to. And yet it is the vistas of the outside world that keep coming in my way — the vistas of which I was an inextricable part not long ago. It is rare, these days, when I ever feel like stepping out, preferring the shell of my cocoon over the wide arms of the outside world —wide and warm and welcoming.
It has been ages since I hung out with the bestest of my pals, ages since I watched a movie in any theatre —I don’t even remember which was the last I did. I haven’t gone to watch any play too. Sucked in by the phantom grind of the daily rigmarole, I have been consumed by the everyday routine (and I don’t mean just work), totally, wholly, obtrusively, left with little time to think, reflect. There was no time to stand and stare as weeks flew. It has been the same for about two months.
April and May had been the cruelest months. They saw me shuttling between writing my exams and rushing to work. It was difficult to manage. And whenever I picked a paper to study, fainting at the sight of the syllabus (I had often just a day to prepare), I could feel the ferocious hunger rage within. Mostly, it happened in the case of poetry: The prescribed poets included: Robert Browning (oh! I can’t tell you how much I loved Porphyria’s Lover and Andrea del Sarto), G.M. Hopkins, Yeats, T.S. Eliot (I almost spent my half day wandering into The Wasteland), Auden, Dylan Thomas, Hughes, Heany, Ezekiel, Ramanujan, Walcott, Frost, Wallace Stevens, Whitman, Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Judith Wright, Michael Ondaatje and many more. I devoured their poems. There are many of them still lingering on my table — many of their collected works peer at me from my study table, inviting, enticing.
My favorites, which I pick tonight as sleeplessness sweeps me, are Whitman and Dylan Thomas. The latter’s Don’t Go Gentle Into That Good Night keeps me “raging against the dying of the light”. I also think of a poem by Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova that I read looong back. It’s called Insomnia.:

Somewhere cats are mewing pitifully,
I catch the sound of distant steps….
Your words are a wonderful lullaby:
Because of them for three months I haven’t slept.
Insomnia, you are with me again, again!
I recognise your fixed countenance.
What is it, my outlaw, what is it, my pretty one,
Do I sing so badly to you?
White cloth curtains the windows,
Dim light streams blue…
Or are we being consoled by news from afar?
Why do I feel so at ease with you?

The night is seductively serene. Stillness roars. No words move about. No words whisper. A while ago, I could hear the pitter-patter of rains in my balcony, but there’s a crying calmness now. A lone star twinkles in the sky, isolated, aloof, astray. The moon remains far, very far, away, not bothering to shower its shine on the night — and me. Sleep continues to elude me. I rise to make myself a steaming cup of coffee as Noor Jehan croons:

Pareshan raat sari hai, sitaaro tum to so jao
Sakoot-e- marg taari hai, sitaaro tum to so jao

(Restlessness reigns the whole night, sleep thou o! the stars
Death’s stillness rules! sleep thou o! the stars)

Hanso aur hanstay hanstay doob jao tum khayalon mein
Hamen yeh raat bhaari hai, sitaaro tum to so jaao
(Laugh and plunge into thoughts while laughing
This night hangs heavy on me, sleep thou o! the stars)

Tumhein kya aaj bhi koi agar milnay nahin aaya
Yeh baazi ham ney haari hai, sitaaro tum to so jao
(How does it affect you if no one, even today, called upon me?
This is a bet that I’ve lost, sleep thou o! the stars)

Hamein to aaj key shab pau phatay tak jaagna hi hai
Yehi kismat hamaari hai, sitaaro tum to so jaao
(I’ve to be up till the crack of dawn
This is my destiny, sleep thou o! the stars)

Hamein bhi neend aa jayeegi, ham bhi so hi jayengey
Abhi kuch beqaraari hai, sitaaro tum to so jao
(Sleep shall come to me too, I too shall sleep
I’m just a little restive as of now, sleep thou o! the stars).

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Jeffrey Archer: An interview

If words are arrows, he’s the Archer. Jeffrey Archer makes the most of his licence to thrill, churning one page-turner after another with amazing regularity. For the last two years, however, he has chosen to stick to his one-book-a-year schedule. After A Prisoner of Birth (2008), Lord Archer is back with his 14th novel, Paths of Glory, his latest bestseller.
Before you get around to doing an interview with him, you are asked to send a brief profile for Lord Archer to go through before you are granted the tete-a-tete. When you meet the author, who was in India for the Landmark Jeffrey Archer Tour to promote Paths of Glory, at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, he reclines imperiously on a sofa. He is in the middle of an interview. When it gets over, he gets up and walks in your direction. But when you, rising from your seat, extend your hand and introduce yourself, he walks away.
There are two things he must do before he settles down for another interview (something he is touring the country for, but something which he doesn’t quite enjoy doing: that explains his selective interaction with the media here): he has to see the lady interviewer off and he has to check out the IPL 2 score. It’s Chennai Super Kings vs the Mumbai Indians and since Lord Archer is a Dhoni fan, he’s rooting for the former. It’s also the day the UPA stormed back to power. And Lord
Archer goes on record terming this as “great news” as, for a change, it’s not a fractured verdict.
Lord Archer is a publishing phenomenon. Each of his books, “compulsively readable,” turns out to be “the No. 1 bestseller”. His readers cut across cultures and continents and run into millions. It’s been long since the “disgraced” former
Tory MP reinvented and redeemed himself through his writings, and when you meet him, it’s the real Jeffrey Archer, the writer, who stands up. While he revels in the British stiff upper lip and the occasional haughtiness, he has a disarming
charm and, even at 69, bristles with energy. He has hawkish eyes and his forehead is fiercely wrinkled. He speaks in a commanding, almost theatrical, voice, gesticulating wildly as he talks about himself and his work.
Lord Archer owes the idea for Paths of Glory, based on the real-life mountaineering mystery of George Leigh Mallory, an English mountaineer who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mt Everest in the early 1920s, to British athlete and Olympic gold medallist Chris Brasher, to whom he dedicates the novel.
“He suggested I should read the non-fiction books on him as there was a magic story there,” says Lord Archer who was struck by Mallory’s advocacy of women’s liberation and his attempts to “getting women at Oxford and Cambridge”. He says: “I love that side of him. It made him such a fierce individual.”
For Mallory, Mt Everest, or Chomolungma (which means Goddess Mother of Earth in the Tibetan language) was “the other woman” in his life, besides Ruth, his wife, whom he
loves very much, keeping her posted about his expeditions through a series of letters. Another key character is that of Australian mountaineer George Finch, Mallory’s rival.
Lord Archer says that Finch, who plays a minor role in the non-fiction books on Mallory, is crucial to his novel. “I wanted to explore their relation. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS), a bunch of bloody snobs, did everything to stop an Australian to be the first person to climb Everest,” says Lord Archer.
When World War I breaks out, Britain is at war with Germany. Mallory leaves his pregnant wife to join the Royal Artillery, though he is exempted from serving in the armed forces as a school teacher. The war sees the death of most of
Mallory’s associates. In the end, the two men who can fulfil the British dream of climbing the Everest are Mallory and Finch. But the latter is disqualified by the RGS on two grounds: he’s an Australian, and he didn’t go to Oxford.
Lord Archer says that had Finch been standing by Mallory’s side, the two men would have conquered the last six hundred feet together.
So, did Mallory actually summit Everest? Well, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that except that Mallory said he put his wife’s photograph on top of the mountain. And when they found his body and looked in his wallet, there was no
photograph of Ruth. Lord Archer says: “We know he was six hundred feet from the top. We know it was his last climb when he was 37. We know that it was now or never for him. We know that his body was found at 2,000 something hundred feet. He’s got to be on his way down. Does it mean he reached the top and then went down? Or does it mean he turned around? But the fact is he would never turn around. 600 feet left, last chance. Turn around? Not a hope! It doesn’t mean he actually went to the top, but these are three pointers that suggest he must have triumphed. If you ask me, he must
have climbed.”
“I’d rather be a dull success than a bright failure,” says Mallory somewhere in the novel. “You get only one chance in life,” says Lord Archer, who has never written about a historical figure before.
His next book, a collection of short stories titled Thereby Hangs a Tale (the best of which is called Casteoff, a love story set in Mumbai), is the next feather in his cap. He reads out the story’s opening line from a piece of paper on which he has been scribbling, jotting down the lines coming to his mind: “‘You must understand that there is no chance of us having a long-term relationship,’ were the words he said after they slept together for the first time. ‘I must make it clear that there is no chance of us having a long-term relationship,’
were the words he said after the first time they slept together.”
“It’s a very good story,” he says, adding that it is based on a real-life couple whom he met last year in Mumbai when he was touring the country. This time round, he again met the couple, met each of them together, and then each of them separately, to get their real story. While the book is due for release this year, Lord Archer, as of now, he has been away for the last nine months, rewriting Kane and Abel. “I set out to rewrite it, thinking it would take a couple of weeks. It took
nine months, 500 hours. And it’s 7,200 words shorter than the original. It’s very different. Not the story, but the treatment,” says Lord Archer about the novel which will be released on October 3. Lord Archer’s concern: 50 million people have
read its earlier edition in this country. God knows how are they going to react to the re-written novel!
It was Kane & Abel (1979), says the author, which changed his life. It topped the New York Times bestseller list. Not A Penny Less, Not a Penny More, his first novel, sold 3,000 copies in the first week. And it kept going. When Kane & Abel came out, it sold a million copies in England in the first week. “I wasn’t prepared for it. Could you imagine that the book comes out on the first day and the publisher rings you up saying, ‘We have sold a million copies in the first week’.”
Lord Archer has also written the screenplay for Paths of Glory. While he has found a director (Bruce Beresford, the Oscar-winner director of Driving Miss Daisy), he is hunting for an actor to play Mallory. The names doing the rounds are those of Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis. While both are amazing actors, you tell him how much you loved Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and how he will be more close to your idea of Mallory. “He was my first
thought. I chose him because he is an actor. He was in school with my son. I went to see him when he was a schoolboy. And he was already very good. So confident. He has got an aura. It’s interesting you said that. I haven’t seen the film, but I have got to do it now. The movie will require a real actor. You better believe in climbing the mountain, otherwise there is no point.”
Lord Archer, an R.K. Narayan fan, is happy to do one book a year and not do anything else. “I watch cricket. I go to theatre. And I am not doing any politics. So the whole energy, the whole focus, is on the next book,” says the author, who describes himself as a “disciplinarian” and a “workaholic”. His two children keep telling him, “Get a life, dad.” And, sometimes, so does their mother. “But that’s what I am. I can’t do anything about it. If you tell me to get a super life and have a good time, I can’t do it. I just can’t do it,” he says.
It’s “not money” that makes Lord Archer tick. He still wants to be read by “everyone on earth”. That is what makes him tick. That is what drives him. “It makes me get better at it every time,” he says.
Lord Archer turns 70 next year. But say that to him and he bellows: “Don’t remind me about me about that!” And then, pointing at a young lady, a friend, next to us, he adds: “Not in the presence of a beautiful lady. It’s a very unkind thing to
do.”. You explain, “What I meant was ” He roars: “What did you mean?” “That it doesn’t show,’’ you say. “Ah! I’m very flattered,” he says, adding, “The energy is still there. I have been very lucky. You get one gift in life. And I have got mine
in the form of writing.”
But, surely, there is more to Lord Archer’s gifts in life. He is blessed to have a wife, Mary, who is known for her charity works. She introduced Lord Archer to the Chanel hospital at Cambridge. When Lord Archer talks about Mary, he is filled
with a sense of pride: “She has 1,000 doctors, 3,000 nurses, £500 million budget.”
The conversation veers off to his short stories. You tell him how much you enjoyed his short stories a tad more than his novels and prison diaries. He tells you how the lady interviewer told him the same thing, naming some of his short
stories which even he didn’t remember.
Lord Archer, like all writers, is inquisitive by nature. For every set of queries that you have for him, he matches it with his own set of questions. “Are you a writer yourself? Have you written any book?” he wants to know.
You tell him how you are dabbling in writing short stories. And hope to get an anthology published soon.
“When?”
“May be by next year.”
“Great. Short stories are a lot easier. In one day, you can create the whole thing, while you can’t write a 400-page novel in a day. You need at least five days to even get there,” he says.
The media here had been abuzz about the fact that Lord Archer might pick a Bollywood director. Some even circulated some names: Rakesh Omprakash Mehra. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. You ask him about his interest in Bollywood. “What is Bollywood? You had great writers and directors even before what is now called Bollywood. What do you think Merchant Ivory was doing? If you compare your old cinema with the contemporary, it’s like 20-20: Merchant Ivory is Test cricket,” he says.
Lord Archer says he “loved” Slumdog Millionaire. “It’s a great film. I fell in love with the young girl and fell in love with her when she grows up. I fell in love with them both. It’s a secret of Danny Boyle’s direction. It’s a great story,” says Lord Archer.
But, what did he make of the parallel view that the film predictably “glorified” India’s poverty. “You can’t ban the film for that reason. If you have problems with poverty, you need your political leaders to get on with it. Don’t blame the film,” he says, singing peans to the emergence of the new middle-class in India and its youth between the 20-30 age group. “The world is going to take off under the new India. Out of its one billion people, a great many of them are faced with hard times. I accept it. And I understand it. But don’t undermine great writings or great films for this reason,” he says.
Coming back to his writings, he has made it clear it is “not for money”. He tells you a story that stands testimony to his claim. A publisher approached him sometime back for a contract. As per that contract, he was not supposed to write but sell his name to the publisher. Someone else would write the book under his name. The publisher was willing to pay him £20 million for a five-year contract (four books a year).
But Lord Archer refused. He says: “I would have 50 million people who wouldn’t know I had written those books. When I dared to face them, they would corner me. Indians like to tell you what they think. They would say, ‘You didn’t even write this book and I bought it because your name was on the cover. I told them, ‘No thanks.’”

And then, Lord Archer is back with his own set of questions.
“Next year, when you write your book, how old will you be?”
When you answer him, he says: “I was 34 when I wrote my
debut, Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less. Good luck.
Good luck.”

And then, another set of questions.
“Where were you educated?”
“Aligarh Muslim University.”
“You never went to England?”
“No.”
“Your English is good.”
“Thank you.”
“When you write your first book, will it be in English? Or
your mother tongue?”
“English.”
“That’s interesting. That’s the reason why India is doing so well because it takes English for granted. The Chinese, on the other hand, fall short in this department. It is in this respect that the Chinese are lagging behind.”

When you take his leave, Lord Archer reminds you: “Talker, write the book. When you report to me next year, young man, I want to see the book. No excuses, ‘I really got busy with other things’. You will DO it.” And then he gives you a piece of advice: “Even if you have read R.K Narayan a hundred times before, do read him when
you write your book. His is simple writing at its best.”

While he signs his books for you, you find time to ask one last question: What happens to the brand Jeffrey Archer when he is not writing anymore. You avoid to hint at the event of his death. But he wants to know. He wants you to be precise.
“Do you mean when I am dead?”
“Well, yes, God forbid!”
“I am not going to die. I shall attend your funeral.”

Lord Archer talks about how 20-30 years from now, there will be reprints of his novels. His writings will live on. They will endure. And each time, his book is reprinted, he will be “reborn”.