The End of the Story

I never like to end a story in two words, but I’m going to end the tale of two bags in two words. I told a friend two episodes in the saga – what I said to my doctor’s assistant and what the delivery boy said to me – which was a mistake because the thrill of telling the tale is gone. Other writers will know what I’m talking about. So to end A Tale of Two Bags in two words: They arrived. The End.

Last time I had confessed that I am averse to making confessions. What I did not confess is that I have a tendency to repeat myself. And so, I confess that I had decided to end this blog. Had I not changed my mind, this post would have been titled “The End” and that would have been the end of that.

I wrote what I thought would be the last post on March 22 and announced to a few friends that I planned to publish it on April 6 or 7. I confessed to making a similar announcement in my first blog proper (“The Fire Thieves”), where I also said that I’d had to eat my words. Alas, I have to eat my words again. (I said I have a tendency to repeat myself.) Notwithstanding my indigestion, I am not going to end this blog. Not this time, anyway.

In the original post, after I’d ended the tale of the two bags in two words, I wrote:

The “end” in the title refers to the end of this blog. Yes, dear reader, this is my last post. (But please don’t stop reading just yet. It ain’t over till the beautiful lady sings.) The decision to end this blog is not one I have made lightly. I rarely make decisions lightly. I usually have a very hard time making decisions, which drives some people mad. (Angry-mad, I mean. I only drive people crazy-mad when I’m behind the wheel. You should hear how they honk.) But this decision wasn’t hard because of my tragic flaw; it was hard because I’ve enjoyed writing this blog so much. Still, if there’s one skill I’ve learnt since I left home sixteen years ago, it’s the art of letting go.

Letting Go

So why did I change my mind? Apart from that Woman’s Prerogative thing, I have two very good reasons. The first arrived on Friday morning, as a comment on a Facebook post.

The comment was from Vishal Thapa, a name I vaguely recognized but couldn’t figure out from where. I jogged my memory and it awoke (which proves how beneficial jogging is). This Vishal Thapa was the brave Indian Army officer I’d written about in my September post (“Blogger’s Block”). I don’t know how he found my blog, but he seemed to have liked what he’d read, and he was kind enough to also like my author page (www.facebook.com/consonantbooks). I thanked him, and since my memory doesn’t always serve even after jogging, asked if he was who I thought he was.

“Yes,” he replied. “I am that one . . . of the many with the same story. . . . Appreciate . . . the fact that you remembered us. . . . God bless you too.”

Two phrases in Vishal’s reply stayed with me all day: “many with the same story” and “the fact that you remembered us.” I thought of “The End,” the post I’d been dragging my feet about, and the thought that ending this blog might rob a reader of some little spark of joy once a month caused a pang or two. My psychoanalytical reader will assert that I’d dragged my feet because I did not really want to end the blog, and for once I will agree with my psychoanalytical reader.

'...so all in all doctor, my life has been pretty uneventful, wouldn't you agree? ...Doctor?'

But I’d had several very good reasons for deciding to end the blog, and they all came rushing back. Vishal’s comments, however pang-inducing, didn’t convince me to keep blogging. The clincher came two days later, when I heard someone say that, about two chapters into a book, she skips to the end to the story to find out what happens. This confession was followed by a spiritual lesson I’ve heard before, so while she continued talking my mind collected thoughts on the subject of reading.

When I read, I don’t skip to the end because for me the pleasure is in the reading, the finding out of what happens, not necessarily in knowing what happens. I derive immense pleasure when an author masterfully employs the elements of storytelling: well-developed characters; scenes that can be visualized; interesting settings and themes; vivid language; and a plausible plot. But I can only derive this pleasure as I read. The person who skips to the end of the story will contend that they do eventually read the book, but the point I am trying to make is that when I pick up a book, I am more interested in how the story unfolds than how it folds.

For a true reader, the pleasure of reading comes from living with the tension of not knowing. The reason a true reader wants to spend time with a book, whether they are conscious of it or not, is to feel this tension. Joe Stretch, my tutor at Keele, used to say something about making the reader worry. Much as I love reading, I will put down a book if this sense of tension is missing in the first few chapters.

My 1,000-word limit approacheth, and the word counter reproacheth. And so, dear reader, it’s time for the beautiful lady to sing. I’d originally planned to end this blog with beautiful Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again,” which had inspired “Some Sunny Day,” the only Pioneer Boulevard story with a first-person narrator. Even though this blog is not ending, I’m going to end this post with that same clip. Because I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.

Vera Lynn

Modern Superstitions and Postmodern Miracles

I have a love-hate relationship with video links forwarded to me. Well, like-dislike is more accurate, but sometimes clichés are better to open blog posts with. I usually watch forwarded links based on the forwarder’s track record (and I usually don’t watch them at all), but in the past week two guys with a good track record sent me links to videos that I watched, enjoyed, and am going to blog about.

Modern Superstitions
No doubt some reader is thinking that I have ended two sentences in the foregoing paragraph incorrectly. Notwithstanding the intentional awkwardness of the first instance, let me say that prepositions are not wrong words to end sentences with. While the rule may be good Latin, Latin is a dead language, and the Brothers Fowler (who, sadly, are also dead) call it a modern superstition that can result in slovenliness. (In writing, they mean, but superstition can result in other forms of slovenliness as well.)

In the third edition of The King’s English (1931), in a note at the end of the chapter on syntax, Henry Fowler (Francis having died in 1918) writes:

Mention has been made . . . of the “superstition” against ending clause or sentence with a preposition; but in 1906 it has not occurred to us to examine seriously the validity of what, superstition or no, is a widespread belief. It was indeed spretae injuria formae that brought home to us the need for such examination, a reviewer having condemned our book out of hand on the ground that the first paragraph of its preface ended in a preposition.

The first sentence of the preface to the first edition is a paragraph long. While referring to it in “Fowlers Howlers: No Levell’d Malice” (February 15) I had quoted only the second part, but I will now quote it in full, as I had quoted another first para in my last post, “Unfatefully Yours” (May 7). I too have a track record to maintain, you know.

The compilers of this book would be wanting in courtesy if they did not expressly say what might otherwise be safely left to the reader’s discernment: the frequent appearance in it of any author’s or newspaper’s name does not mean that that author or newspaper offends more often than others against the rules of grammar or style; it merely shows that they have been among the necessarily limited number chosen to collect instances from.

Unlike the unnamed reviewer, I don’t mind that the Fowlers ended that paragraph with a preposition. What I take umbrage at is the length of that sentence. Had I been their editor, or even their lowly proofreader, I’d have marked it thus:

Kings English 1st ed preface

Postmodern Miracles
The first of the two video links forwarded to me recently was a TED talk that led me to one by the great Indian novelist Shashi Tharoor, then India’s minister of state for External Affairs, today for HRD, and tomorrow for Kuch Nahin (his party having lost the elections). Tharoor was talking about why nations should pursue soft power, which he describes as “the ability of a country to attract others because of its culture, its political values, its foreign policies.” 

To have soft power, says Tharoor, a country must be “connected,” and India has become “an astonishingly connected” country. As of November 2009 (when his TED talk was filmed), India was selling 15 million new cellphones a month – a far cry (or a long-distance call) from the state of affairs when I was growing up. Tharoor paints an accurate picture of India’s telecom backwardness back then, when the average Indian had to wait an average of eight years for a connection, the connection itself being average. (In those days SMS stood for St. Mary’s School or, for our rivals, School of a Million Snobs.)

“What is most striking is who is carrying those cellphones,” says Tharoor, giving examples of the istri-walla (the ironing man, not the Iron Man), the toddy tapper, and the fisherman. “This empowerment of the underclass is the real result of India being connected.” He’s right, but as a woman I wish he had included a few underclass women who are being empowered by the cellphone in India. Instead, he goes on to talk about Bollywood. I, who do not want to talk about Bollywood, will stick to the subject of postmodern miracles.

It is no secret that many rural subscribers in India don’t know what a landline is, having taken a giant leap from no phone to cellphone, but I didn’t know how savvy they were until a trip some years ago. One day I was at a kirana store – those corner shops that sell everything from brooms to ballpoint pens to biscuits (in the British sense) – when an Enfield motorbike pulled up and in walked the rider. Based on his dress and a few other clues I could trust my judgment on, the guy was not a city slicker. One of these clues, I will add, is that when he strode past me he didn’t slyly touch some part of my anatomy. In India I find the rural male generally more respectful in this regard than his city-slicking counterpart. I have touched on the touchy issue of inappropriate touch in a Pioneer Boulevard story, but I won’t do so here or we’ll never get to the end of this story.

This story ends with a transformation in my appearance, since my jaw dropped and my eyes popped when the man ordered a SIM card for his smartphone. It sounded like a seam card the way he pronounced it, but he certainly knew what to do with it when the shopkeeper gave it to him. I was impressed because I ain’t tech-savvy and because I had in my hand a couple items whose names I could pronounce correctly in three languages but which I could not decide between.

Reader, let my preposition go. You’ll be better off watching this TED talk by the charming Ahmedabad-based educator Kiran Bir Sethi. For me the most inspiring bit is the literacy campaign in rural Rajasthan (6:49 to 7:30), in which children teach their non-literate parents how to write. That, methinks, is a miracle greater than village people with smartphone smarts.

TED Talks Indian Kids Take Charge

____________
H.W. and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), pp. 3, 179.

A World in A Grain of Sand

Last time I promised to share what happened on January 28 to make me realize that my pre- and post-pub readers might not be as much like Kipling’s east and west (i.e., completely unalike) as I had thought. It happened when a young man by the name of Matt won my heart at the Cerritos Library author talk

How Matt won my heart was by asking me the question I’d been waiting for since Pioneer Boulevard was published seven months before. Actually, I’d been waiting for that question long before the book was published – perhaps since the idea was born in my dorm room at Keele. (That my muse should pick that prosaic place when she could have visited me anywhere on that lovely campus proves that inspiration is not bound by the external world – not even in England’s green and pleasant land. But over the next months, I regularly took my characters for walks around Keele because there’s only so much they would tell me in that prosaic place.)

Matt’s question at the Cerritos reading had two parts, the first to do with the differences between Indian and American fiction. I won’t discuss it here because I have said as much as I am probably qualified to say, and it is included in the longer version of the video (available YouTube and my author page on Amazon). The second part is what I’d been waiting for, and it was this: What do writers have to offer readers? In other words, What are the Functions of Literature?

Although Matt had asked what Indian writers can offer American readers, I chose to interpret the question in its broadest sense because:
(i) The Functions of Literature remain the same whether the writer is from India, Russia, Colombia, or Algeria; and
(ii) I wanted to avoid speaking for all Indian writers. I am neither an Indian writer living in India nor a second-generation Indian American, so I don’t feel qualified to speak for either party. 

In my hurry to get to the Functions of Literature I forgot to mention what I have long felt was the most significant contribution Indian writers have made since Rushdie blazed a trail with Midnight’s Children: an interpretation of India, past and present, that is their own (their own as opposed to Kipling’s or Forster’s or Paul Scott’s). I regret my haste the more because it would have been the perfect prologue to the Functions of Literature. Darn it. 

Literature, I said in response to Matt’s question, opens one’s experience to other worlds. By “other” I didn’t mean merely foreign, even though multicultural writing opens us to other worlds (or opens other worlds to us) most obviously because of the otherness of the world of the book. But all literature opens our experience to other worlds, because it allows us into another’s world – and from there the possibilities are endless. Consider the number of contexts in which a single Shakespeare play can be enacted. I once saw an Othello set in Nazi Germany, and even Bollywood has its version. It’s only a version, of course, with enough song and dance to keep the groundlings happy – and perhaps that’s what the blogger who posted a review some months ago meant by “the morale of the story.”

Be that as it may, for some reason I had the opening stanza of Auguries of Innocence in mind while answering Matt’s question. Blake, being Blake, is talking about much more than the Functions of Literature, but the stanza nevertheless came to mind when I said that I hope my book does what all Literature should do, which is to “open one’s experience to other worlds.”

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I described my book as a “little offering,” not from false modesty or because I had Auguries in mind. I described Pioneer Boulevard as a “little offering” because I believe it is just that. No more, but no less – little, but yet an offering. Or, to use Blakean imagery, on the vast shore of literature, my book is a grain of sand.

Still, I’d rather be a grain of sand on the shore of literature than not be on the shore of literature at all.