Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dear Zorro

Los Angeles, 
C/o Johnston McCulley

Dear Zorro,

What a swashbuckling character you are! From the eye mask just above the thin moustache to the flowing cape, the flat-brimmed black sombrero to the fiery distinctive swathe of Z that you cut through the air in three quick strokes using your rapier, I was impressed with you quite early on. And then when you reared up on your steed, Tornado, with your sword held upright, I marveled even more.

The best thing about your costume was that it abetted your wiliness, instead of hindering it. You would keep a dagger in your left boot for emergencies. And while anyone else would have long since tripped on the cape (imagine doing all those acrobatics with a cape that might well twist itself around your neck twice over), you are able to use it to trip others and disarm them. Often you throw your hat with surprising swiftness at others. How you manage to retrieve it, I never could figure out.

You demonstrated amazing gymnastic ability, effortlessly leaping across from one roof to another, often surprising pretty women just about to have their bath, jumping over tall structures, without falling, and always landing on your feet. You were a great swordsman and your aim was precise and exact, another point in your favour.

Nor did you ever use mere strength to outsmart your opponents in your quest to fight against injustice, avenge the helpless and aid the oppressed. It was the force of your intelligence, your foxiness, with which you won your way, time and again. The fact that your name is Spanish for fox might have something to do with the appeal. I’ve always had a thing for the language.

And then again the fact that you were a secret identity upped the notch quite a bit. No one ever suspected that you were the alter ego of Don Diego de la Vega, a foppish Californian nobleman living in Los Angeles at a time when the Spanish held sway there. Incidentally, as Don Diego, you pretend to be a dull, insipid character, who writes poetry and cannot be trusted with any weapon, probably to enable yourself, as Zorro, to shine brighter in comparison.

The disguise is so impressive that even Lolita, a noblewoman fallen upon bad times, is charmed with you, and looks down upon Don Diego. Why movie and book heroines fail to catch on to something that is so obvious to the rest of us, is another of life’s mysteries.

You were a sort of Spanish Robin Hood, who defended the people of the land against the tyranny of the rulers. Your name paid tribute to the foxlike stealth with which you overcame and outwitted the bad guys. Your popularity soared when you began the practice of publicly humiliating the villainous and bumbling policia of the land. 

With you around, the common folk received both their dose of free entertainment as well as the satisfaction of knowing that those who trampled upon them were being made fools of.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Dear Yahoos

the Yahoos, 
Country of the Houyhnhnms, 
C/o Jonathan Swift, 
Gulliver’s Travels

Dear Yahoos,

I didn’t meet you until I read the unabridged edition of Gulliver’s Tavels. Prior to that, I had only heard of the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians.

When Gulliver first met you, he hardly acknowledged your humanity. He preferred to describe you as
“deformed…Their heads and breasts were covered with thick hair . . . but the rest of their bodies were bare . . . . They had no tails and often stood on their hind feet . . . . I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal." 

Your personal habits and behaviour did much to confirm his beliefs. You were filthy and you stank, you gorged on garbage and raw meat and everything whose consumption would be prohibited by the food codes of any civilized community. What’s worse, Gulliver emphasised that you were “the most filthy, noisome, and deformed animals which nature ever produced,” besides being
“mischievous and malicious.” In essence, you represent mankind at its most vicious and depraved.

To drive the point home, Swift raised some very pertinent points. He let us know that you guys love to collect “pretty stones” that you find in the mud, that you are ever willing to fight for the most inconsequential of reasons, that you like to sneak up on fellow Yahoos in order to attack them or steal from them.


Sounds familiar!

I can see the similarity, even though Gulliver won’t. But that is because Gulliver doesn’t want to see in you the mirror image of what we are. He would rather identify himself with the peaceful, rational Houhynhnms because the truth, that he is more like you, is extremely unpalatable. It is better to deny such unpleasant truths.

Ironically, you were debased and animal-like, even though you appeared human as far as body shape, size and type, and facial features were concerned. The Houhynhnms are completely horselike in form and shape.

But because Swift was writing a satire, and not a fantasy tale, we know that Gulliver and, by extension, we have more in common with your tribe than with the Houhynhnms.

But there is another side of you that Gulliver simply won’t consider, even though he should. After all, it was he who said,
“Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.” 

It is the fact that you are alive, that you have strong emotions and sexual appetites, that you enjoy having fun and frolicking about, and that showing good manners doesn’t rank too high on your list of priorities.

The Houyhnhnms, by contrast, don’t express their emotions; they don’t even cry when someone dies. They take their detachment to such an extreme that it appears like coldness, a lack of empathy and humanity, even though on the face of it, they are not savage, like you.

Gulliver makes his choice of favourite people, and it is not you.

Who would I have chosen, had I been in his shoes?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Dear X-men

C/o Professor X, 
Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, 
also known as the X-Mansion,
Westchester County,
New York, 
C/o Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Dear X-men,

Who would have believed that a new idea could be born even in the midst of a creativity drought! 

There’s a lesson there for those of us who get caught in dead-ends in our lives.

Apparently, Stan Lee wanted to create a new bunch of superheroes but couldn’t seem to come up with great origin stories for them. After all, how often could you ship someone over from another planet, have them exposed to gamma ray explosion or bitten by an insect? The novelty would have begun to wear off after a while. The easiest thing to do was to decree that someone was born that way.

Your name was given to you by Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, who can control and read minds, and who assumes the trouble of banding you together. But X actually stands for the X-gene, the unknown gene that causes mutation, giving you something X-tra that us ordinary humans do not have.

And that’s how you came to be the X-men. Even the women. But actually you are mutants, a subspecies of humans born with superhuman abilities. I was in awe of you. Your ability to eat fire, walk through walls and doors, grow knives right out of your fingers, everything impressed me. And even though I knew that a number of you, or at least the world around, viewed your gift as a curse, I sometimes wished for a radical gift like that.

The makers sometimes got so caught up in the larger story of the X-men versus Magneto, the arch enemy of Professor X, that I felt that they lost the opportunity to make you human. To give you interesting back stories, and to show you struggling in a world that isn’t designed to comfort the likes of you.

What distinguishes you from other mutants is that you are trained by Professor X to fight for peace and equality and to envision a world in which normal humans like me and mutants like you could live in harmony without harming each other. It was a natural aspiration in the “Marvel”ous superhero universe.

What you didn’t count on was the level of difficulty you’d be up against. Don’t you know how much difficulty we have in harmonising with other humans? How could you even think of spiking up the mix with mutants and expect us to swallow it without protest?

But in doing so, you discovered the larger goal of fighting against prejudice and racism, the lust for power and the struggle of good against evil.

In recruiting mutants from around the world, the stage was set for introducing multi-cultural hues and philosophies, and for making the canvas of your world far more expansive than it was. And that too was a good thing.

Sometimes I wonder if there are mutants among us, people who keep their gifts under wraps for fear of inviting a backlash of hatred. Maybe there are, and maybe we are all mutants in some form or the other.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Dear Winnie the Pooh


Winne the Pooh,
Hundred Acre Wood,
C/o Christopher Robin,
C/o AA Milne

Dear Winnie-the-Pooh,

You were never part of my childhood. I became acquainted with you only recently through my children.

Together with my kids, I would visit that
“place in the Forest where a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” Before I knew it, I began to love you. I began to welcome the gooey, sweet and warm feeling that seemed to fill me whenever we read one of your stories.

The unique thing about you was that you were a character within a make-believe world even within the make-believe book. Christopher Robin’s stuffed toys came to life. You were his pride. As Milne said,
“Pooh is the favourite, of course, there's no denying it."

For a Bear with Very Litte Brain who is bothered by long words, you certainly made your presence felt. That was because what you lacked in Brain, you made up in Heart. You are loyal (you once said, “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you") caring (“Just because an animal is large, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want kindness”) and dependable, always game for adventure, always willing to take the initiative (“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”). When Eeyore loses his tail, it was you who offered to find it for him. 

You take your friendships very seriously.
"A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside." And while your philosophy of life sounds very deceptively simple, the longer I think about it, the more sense it seems to make. “Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

Of course, you’re not without your faults. When you see honey, you stuff yourself to the point when you can’t even enter the door. Also, there are times when you think a little too highly of yourself. Or when you’re rather simple minded, slow to understand what is going on. Of course, confession time, when you say, “Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?” I know exactly what you are talking about. That kind of thing happens to me all the time.

But we don’t hold your little quirks against you, because we can tell that your heart is in the right place.

In today’s world in which our children are under constant pressure to immerse themselves in some instructional activity or the other that will help them in the future, you stand out for your willingness to play and just do “Nothing.” And of course, the learning doesn’t stop for you. You learn to be assertive, considerate of others, respectful, lessons that stand us in better stead in the School of Life.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dear Vito Corleone

Vito Andolini Corleone, 
formerly of Corleone, Sicily, Italy, 
currently residing in New York City, 
C/o Mario Puzo, 
The Godfather

Dear Vito,

I first watched you when I was very little, and for a long time, I figured the word godfather meant a spiritual guardian. Funny, I know. 

Your mafia connections, and businesses founded on gambling, bootlegging and union corruption, were far from my mind.

I don’t know how I got it into my head that you were some kind of a benevolent and rich businessman. Perhaps I got misled by all the kissing you guys do, and deluded myself into thinking that there was some genuine affection there.

Also, I mistook your enigmatic quote,
“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” I used to wonder why people reacted so strongly to that statement. Surely the fact was that the offer was so good that one didn’t want to refuse. I would wonder why no one made me an offer like that. It was much later that I realized that its sting lay in the hard fact that it was quite literally true. Listeners just could not refuse.

You generally prided yourself on being reasonable, but you know how it is, one man’s reasonableness can be another man’s…you get the drift. So you didn’t think twice about using violence to get what you wanted. Remember when you had one of your opponent’s prize horses killed and had the horse’s severed head placed on the guy’s bed? Gruesome touch! You said it best: “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold.” 

You also think very highly of your own sense of generosity and your strict moral code of loyalty to your friends, and above all, the family. “A man who is not a father to his children can never be a real man.” Another time you asked someone, “Do you spend time with your family? Good. Because a man that doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man.” Truly, your love for your family is admirable. On the flip side, what that means for those who can neither call themselves your friends or family, I shudder to think.

You live in a strange world, one where the moral code is suitably adjusted to make room for personal desires, and long held resentments. As you said, “It was not perhaps the warmest friendship in the world, they would not send each other Christmas gift greetings, but they would not murder each other.” 

And yet in your own way, you abide by that same strange moral code. And you’re not too wrong there either. “A lawyer can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns.” 

There are some hard lessons you taught those who cared enough to listen to you. “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” In your world, neither is to be trusted. “Even if you've grown up with someone and you go way back, always watch your back.”

What kind of a life you led! No wonder it made you so toughnosed. 

Just remind me never to cross your path.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Dear Lt Uhura

Lt Uhura,
Star Ship Enterprise,
Space, the final frontier
C/o Gene Rodenberry

Dear Lt Uhura,

You are a hero! The first woman in space!

What an honour it is to be addressing you!

The Star Ship Enterprise’s five-year mission was to “boldly go where no man had gone before.” Something about those lines used to give me the impression that it was an all-boys club. But you broke that impression.

You were quite something in your day. I read somewhere that Oprah, as a young girl, saw you in the series on TV, and remarked to her father, “I just saw a black woman on television, and she ain’t no maid.” No, you were a communications officer, highly respected and very good at your job.

When you planned to leave the series, Martin Luther King Jr himself told you that you should stick around. Apparently he was pleased with the show’s vision of a future of racial harmony, cooperation and equality. In fact, Uhuru is freedom in Swahili. There couldn’t have been a bigger endorsement than that, could there?

It couldn’t have been easy to spend endless years on that ship with a bunch of guys who couldn’t always have been on their best behaviour, particularly when we switched off our televisions and went our ways. Some of them must have been rude and obnoxious and wondered what you were doing, sharing space with them. That too on the deck where the action was, not in the ship mess, where action of another kind was unfolding. 

I’m sure you faced discrimination, and harassment, but you must have tackled it in your own inimitable manner, because the next time we were back in front of the box, you were in control of yourself and no one could sass you around.

How many barriers you demolished when you sailed around the universe! Not only were you a woman, but you were an African American woman. And you held your own not only against your own compatriots, and, shall I say, other homo sapiens, but also against aliens from other planets, whenever they happened to be beamed down on to the Star Ship Enterprise. 

You were quick on your feet, and the sight of inimical aliens poised for attack never fazed you. You were able to think of ways to hoodwink those aliens and rescue the ship safely.

You have an intensely curious mind, and are always seeking to know more about other worlds, in keeping with the Enterprise mission. You were very competent, that was something nobody could deny, assuring your place in the control room of the Enterprise. And so in being who you were, you made a strong case for both your race and gender. 

You were a pioneer.

Your romance with Mr Spock, sigh, how good you two were together. One time, he tenderly called you Nyota, your first name, which means star in Swahili. The joke was that Captain Kirk, our heartthrob in those days, tried hard to find out your first name and was flummoxed when he heard Mr Spock call you.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Saving India's rice

“If you tickle the earth with a hoe,” it is said, “she laughs with a harvest.”

Not anymore.

The agricultural yield of India has been steadily decreasing over time. Nowhere is this depletion more evident than in the cultivation of rice, once a staple crop in the country.

There was a time when fields across the country saw the harvesting of numerous varieties of rice that were native to a particular village and were not to be found anywhere else. These strains of rice were treasured by generations of farmers for their capacity to grow well in extreme weather conditions such as droughts or floods. Such rice also had a strong medicinal value (some could even prevent cancers) and were not affected by saltwater.

Dr Debal Deb, noted India rice conservationist, estimates that India was once home to more than 100,000 local varieties of rice. That number has now dropped to 6000, owing to modern methods that encourage the growth of hybrids in the hope of netting high yields.

Abysmal as the loss is, it would have been much worse were it not for the efforts of Dr Deb, who has singlehandedly worked hard to remedy the situation. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science, Dr Deb is a Fulbright scholar who has done post-doctoral ecology work at the University of California at Berkeley. Buoyed by the courage of his convictions, he gave up his job at the World Wildlife Fund to save the country’s rice strains.

Dr Deb has made it his personal mission to give renewed life to those lost varieties of rice. He visits remote regions and gets in touch with marginalized farmers that the country has forgotten about in his quest to source the seeds to these varieties. His efforts require him not only to battle larger issues of climate change and poverty, but also to fight against bureaucracy and the apathy of people.

His battleground is a 2.5 acre plot of land in a forest area on the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha, where Dr Deb is growing 920 varieties of rice. These varieties are planted in the traditional manner, with care taken to ensure that no two varieties grow at the same time, to prevent cross pollination and ensure the genetic purity of the varieties.

Over the last few decades, Dr Deb has collected more than a 1000 varieties of rice from 13 states across India. He stores the seeds in a seed bank named Vrihi, the Sanskrit word for rice. These are seeds that Dr Deb painstakingly collected from farmers. But for his efforts, these numbers would have been added on the debit side, aggravating the loss that the country suffers.

To do this, Dr Deb has initiated a unique method, a seed exchange programme that rewards farmers for sharing. He grows the rice and then distributes it in 1kg packets. Farmers receive the packets free, but must bring back 2kg to him, to prove that they have cultivated it. And so the cycle continues, including more and more farmers in its ever increasing spiral of generosity.

The spurt given to the cultivation of these varieties of rice contributes to food security and helps perpetuate the culture and the local biodiversity. Enabling these varieties to thrive has also served farmers well. When Cyclone Aila destroyed parts of West Bengal in 2009, some farmers in the Sundarbans who were cultivating salt-tolerant varieties of rice, with the support of Dr Deb, reported a rich harvest.

As the devastating effects of global warming become a reality and extreme weather conditions become more and more evident, the value of Dr Deb’s efforts will become more evident. Dr Deb also hopes that this resurgence will re-kindle farmers’ interest in traditional farming methods.

In a world in which food security has begun to cause grave concern and in which food varieties are disappearing forever, Dr Deb’s efforts can help herald a new era for Indian agriculture.

I believe that Dr Deb's efforts are all that stand between profusion and extinction for India’s rice heritage.

Dear reader, if you are reading this and believe, as I do, in the perseverance against all odds displayed by Dr Deb, please do not forget to vote for him. Please vote for Dr Deb. 

I’m voting for Dr Deb’s #WillOfSteel and blogging on BlogAdda to help him get felicitated and eventually enabled by JSW."

Climbing Mt Everest on limbs of steel

Reputed world federalist leader and editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review of Literature Norman Cousins wrote in his book, Human Options, “Most men think they are immortal -- until they get a cold, when they think they are going to die within the hour.”

It was a quote that sprang to my mind when I read about the brutally horrifying accident that Arunima Sinha lived through. The newspaper, the largest selling English newspaper in India, had given her three paragraphs in a single column.

A national level volleyball player then, Arunima was pushed out of the general coach of a running train, the Padmavati Express, on April 11, 2011, by thieves who attempted to snatch her bag and gold chain. When she resisted them, they pushed her out. She had been on her way from Lucknow to Delhi to take an examination that would qualify her to join the CISF [Central Industrial Security Force].

Falling on the tracks, struck immobile by the force of being catapulted out of a moving train, Arunima lay powerless on the track when a train on the other track went over her leg. Soon after that, a train on a parallel track ran over her leg again, crushing her leg below the knee. She lay there all night, even as rats chewed on her broken leg, and 49 trains went up and down. She was only rescued in the morning.

Doctors at the local hospital had no anaesthesia to operate upon her. Arunima told them she had already lived through pain, and that they should go ahead to save her life. Eventually, they had to amputate her leg in order to save her life.

Anyone else’s spirits would have been crushed, following such a devastating accident. Not Arunima.

Days later, she was moved to AIIMS [All India Institute of Medical Sciences]. A private company gave her a prosthetic leg free of cost. Meanwhile the media had a field day, accusing her of travelling ticketless and of jumping off the train. Others said she was intent of committing suicide. Arunima battled these misconceptions as much as the pain.

For 4 months, she stayed in AIIMS. While still there, she decided to climb Mount Everest and take up mountaineering. People belittled her efforts but she could not be stopped. Meeting Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest, helped her to realize her dream, giving her the training and the exposure she needed to make her dream come true.

Becoming a part of the Tata group-sponsored Eco Everest Foundation, Arunima took on the larger-than-life challenge of climbing a mountain that has deterred and attracted bravehearts for centuries. It took her 52 days to reach the summit. She was on top of the world on May 21, 2013, a little over 2 years after her accident.

Very close to the summit, the Sherpa refused to accompany her, saying that an amputee would find it difficult to climb Everest, that they should turn back. When he refused to listen to her pleas, she went on alone.

Her oxygen tank was nearly running on empty. The sherpa pleaded with her. At this point, even her artificial leg came off.

Through this ordeal, she became the first Indian amputee and the first female amputee to climb Mount Everest. In fact, she drove herself so hard that she overtook the others who accompanied her on the climb. You can listen to her story first hand in her own words and voice here:

I was so completely touched on viewing this video. Arunima is a plucky girl, who has shown uncommon courage, in spite of her disability.

Soon after, she was determined to climb the highest peaks on each of the continents. She followed up her Mount Everest success with Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Elbrus in Europe and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia.

She is now working towards opening a free sports academy for the poor and differently-abled. Her courage and determination have made her an inspiration to millions of differently abled people. Her actions have shown that they can live their lives with dignity.

Arunima’s achievements remind me of another quote by Norman Cousins. He said, “If something comes to life in others because of you, then you have made an approach to immortality.”

I believe that Arunima has earned her right to immortality.

Dear reader, if you are reading this and believe, as I do, in Arunima's rare courage and strength of will, please do not forget to vote for her. Please vote for Arunima. 

I’m voting for Arunima Sinha’s #WillOfSteel and blogging on BlogAdda to help her get felicitated and eventually enabled by JSW."

Dear Truman Burbank

Truman Burbank, 
C/o Christof 
C/o Andrew Niccol, 
The Truman Show

Dear Truman,

Being an intensely private person, I feel a lot of sympathy for you, forced as you were to live your life, LIVE!, under the relentless gaze of a billions-strong worldwide audience, 24x7x365xYour entire lifetime. Of course, for the greater part, you were unaware that you were the object of so much curiosity, and that is no mean consolation. 

For you, all the world was truly a stage with thousands of hidden cameras watching your every move, and hundreds of set decorators and actors sharing screen space with you, the clueless star, the only one who was spontaneous and real.

The producer tried every cheap trick to control you. He “killed” your “father” in a “storm” to create in you a phobia of the “ocean” and to dissuade you from leaving the giant set that you thought was your “hometown”. He created news stories and commercials to extol the virtues of staying home and warn you of the dangers of traveling. When you fell in love with an extra, Sylvia, who sought to enlighten you about the truth, she was made to disappear.

When you finally caught on to what was happening (a studio light falling from the artificial night sky just outside your house gave the game away), I cheered for you, as the pieces slowly began to fall into place. As you realized that your wife was mouthing advertising spiel, and that the same people were crossing your paths at the same time every day. Once your car radio picked up a conversation between the show’s crew as they tracked your movements.

Your realization that none of your experiences were genuine was heartbreaking. Even as your audience watched you, they rooted for you, hoping you’d beat the system.

After that, they couldn’t hold you back even though they tried. You struggled to get out of their constructed reality, to be a True-Man, not a mere pawn in their game. As you told them, “You never had a camera in my head!”

Your repeated efforts to leave town failed. The producer wasn’t about to let his golden goose get away so easily. He had no qualms about having you actually killed to prevent you from leaving. His justification was that you were born in front of a live audience, so if required he could make you die in front of billions of viewers (or is it voyeurs?). But you showed your strength of will in overcoming your fear of the water.

We live in a strange world. Today there are many who willingly opt to be a part of the artifice-ridden circus that is a reality show. I commend you for having the courage to turn your back on the safe reality that you were familiar with in order to explore life outside it. Even after the producer warned you that there was no more truth outside.

You deserve your freedom.

Welcome to the real world, and in case, "I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dear Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes, 
221B Baker Street, 
C/o Arthur Conan Doyle

Dear Sherlock Holmes,

The image of your hawk nose, sharp features and deerstalker hat and pipe in silhouette on the cover was enough. I couldn’t wait to be a part of your adventures.

The impression created by the silhouette was deepened by the physical description that Doyle provided of you. It marked you as a man of alertness and determination. A man worth watching out for.

I’ve always been in awe of you, from the moment I first met you in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. You deduced a wealth of information from the condition of a hat. “A man with so large a brain must have something in it.” Subsequently, your deductions were justified, and I learned to look out for your unique blend of observation and intuition.

Your one big failing, though, was your fragile ego. I’m very uncomfortable with people who insist on blowing their own trumpets. I guess Dr Watson gives you your daily ego boost by following your exploits and writing them down for posterity. But must you mock the good doctor when he tries to follow your methods and fails to arrive at any verifiable conclusions? Or when he can’t seem to follow your train of thought using the clues which you insist are obvious?

You seem to live only to solve crimes, eschewing any semblance of a social life and dipping into a morbid depression when there isn’t a good mystery to tease your mind. Idleness exhausts you completely. You said, “My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.”

But when there is nothing to occupy your mind, you resort to cocaine and tobacco, a failing of yours that I cannot reconcile with your greatness. I wish you’d ditch the stimulants. True genius doesn’t need sick props to hold it up.

Your acknowledgement that you hated people couldn’t disappoint me for long. I understand your feelings. Maybe you couldn’t relate to the stupidity of some people or their small mindedness, and had to rely on your old books for comfort. I hope that you may always be inundated with work.

I admired your dedication to that which concerned you, and your ignorance of everything that didn’t. You said, “What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go around the sun. If we went around the moon, it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.”

The disguises you used added to your appeal, as did your tendency to forget everything else when you were chasing a scent.

Doyle wasn’t too happy with your popularity and longed to receive recognition for his serious writing. So he had you killed in one story. Fortunately, he had you come alive too and saved me from slipping into melancholy.

For your sake, and mine, I wish that the game may always be afoot.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dear Richard Parker

Richard Parker, 
C/o Piscine Molitor Patel aka Pi, 
Somewhere on the Ocean, 
C/o Yann Martel, 
The Life of Pi

Dear Richard Parker,

I’m so grateful for the clerical error which saves me from addressing you by your given name, Thirsty. In my imagination, I prefix it with the word, blood, and the result doesn’t bode well for my safety and longevity.

Now the name Richard Parker lulls me into thinking that I am addressing a gentleman, not a Royal Bengal Tiger weighing 450 pounds who might see his next meal in me.

Though captured as a cub and bred in captivity, you retain your bloodthirsty instincts. Going by the law of nature, Pi should never have survived long enough to spend seven months at sea with you. That too, on a lifeboat. So why didn’t his story end there?

The fact that Pi’s father managed the Pondicherry Zoo where you resided, and that you were used to alpha males, in the guise of zookeepers and trainers, dominating you might explain a lot. When Pi sought to keep you under control through cues that he had seen his father use, you took it in your stride; it was familiar stuff. But that still doesn’t account for how you toned down the fearsomeness for his benefit.

Pi owes you a great debt. Without you around to challenge him and keep his senses razor sharp, he would have long since given way to despair. There was so much that was wrong in his life then: the lack of food and water, the storms, winds and predators at sea, and prolonged exposure to the elements.

And then to spice the mix up, there was you.

The poor chap just couldn’t relax. Despite his confusion and grief (he’d lost his family, remember?) he still had his wits about him. He realized that if he let his guard down, none of the other problems he faced would plague him for long.

The survival instinct reminded him of the training exercises he’d seen his father pull off, and in repeating them successfully, he was heartened. His situation was still uncomfortable and dangerous, but now he had something he didn’t have before: Hope.

In feeding himself and you, he found a new purpose, a reason to keep on living, the motivation to fight the odds. Time passed by more swiftly, with you around to keep him challenged.

He acknowledged the debt towards the end of the book, when you were both washed ashore in Mexico. You turned your back on him and stalked away. That action affected him more than the experience of drifting at sea had.

Of course, the Japanese investigators didn’t think you were real. They figured you and Pi were one, that you were his primal, animalistic side that kept him alive when nothing else could. The side that surfaced when the despair of hunger and loneliness drove him crazy.

I don’t know which version I believe.

Richard Parker, the tiger, sounds more fun.

Richard Parker, the reflection in the mirror, isn’t.

What’s the truth?

Only you know, but you’re so repressed yourself you won’t let on.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Dear Queen Scheherazade

Queen Scheherazade, 
C/o Sultan Shahryar, 
Sultan of Persia (borders stretching up to India and China), The Thousand and One Nights Stories

Dear Queen Scheherazade,

Accept my congratulations on being anointed the Queen of Persia. 

Your predecessors, numbering more than a thousand, did not live to see the morrow. You would have followed in their inglorious footsteps, were it not for your brilliant plan.

Cuckolded by his wife, the Sultan decided that all women were inherently unfaithful. His beloved brother had also been betrayed, reinforcing his belief. And so the Sultan decreed a just punishment. For years he married a new virgin each day, consummated the marriage (couldn’t miss that, could he?) and had her beheaded in the morning. Until the day he ran out of virgins. 

Your father, the Grand Vizier, was at his wit’s end, fearing for his own life. You offered yourself as a bride. He pleaded with you, now fearing your inevitable fate, but you had an ace up your sleeve. 

And so we have the rich tradition of the Arabian Nights Tales.

I am amazed at the felicity with which you recounted those stories, weaving magic with your words, even as the threat of death loomed over your head.

And the lifesaver was the cliffhanger. Where you stopped, always at dawn, forcing the Sultan to let you live for one more night that you may finish the story.

You capitalized on the lifeline, wrapping up one story and launching into the next, stopping at the edge of the tale, at the tipping point, as dawn broke over the horizon.

I’ve always been in awe of you. Your ability to draw your Grand Audience into your spell until time meant nothing, while he hung on to every word.

He is one with you, with your story. Nothing else matters. That is the principal power of the story.

Long before the dream of writing first possessed me, I was captivated by your skills. I’ve subconsciously measured the skills of every other storyteller against the yardstick set by you.

A story must make the reader step within its confines, until the boundaries between the story and the reader are blurred, and they are one with each other. As it should be.

After 1001 nights, you ran out of stories, and you told him so. But your stories had changed the Sultan. For a good story never fails to wash over us.

Imagine the relief of the Sultan’s subjects, knowing their daughters are safe, thanks to you. You took on the risk of marrying the Sultan, when you needn’t have. Your heroism, in the face of grave danger, potentially saved thousands of other women.

What stories you wove! People of the land and of the sea, the birds of the air, the beasts of the land and sea, all throwing their collective might into your conjuring.

Every element of your story was in sync. Characters and plots, wrapped in beautiful prose, the whole thing held together by the magic of your voice.

Your stories forced the Sultan to have a change of heart.

Thank you, O Queen.

He is a lucky man, that Sultan.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dear Pinocchio

C/o Geppeto, 
C/o Carlo Collodi

Dear Pinocchio,

“As plain as the nose on your face” What an interesting phrase! In your case, it’s quite literally true.

I wonder what it must feel like to know that every lie you utter, even if it be a harmless, ‘white’ one, will be exposed to the world by your steadily lengthening nose. What a heavy burden to place upon an animated wooden puppet!

As a puppet, you weren’t guided or governed by any conscience or moral system. Why oblige you to act in accordance with something you didn’t have? We humans, despite having access to complicated and intricate value systems and a conscience that is capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, still manage to come up with our own fabrications to delude ourselves and others. Why hold a puppet accountable then?

Of course, I must acknowledge that the elongation of your nose does not depend on lies alone. The strange phenomenon is also in evidence when you’re nervous. And maybe that’s a good sign. Maybe it means that you were basically honest, and that telling a lie made you nervous and stressed you out.

Your goal was simple. You did not want to go to school and study, but preferred to “chase after butterflies, climb trees, and steal birds’ nests.” Exactly how Geppeto, the wood carver, made you -- to “be able to dance, fence and turn somersaults,” so he could “go around the world, to earn my crust of bread and cup of wine.”

At heart you were innocent and naïve, yet sometimes gullible and cruel. Always playing pranks upon others, never thinking about the consequences. Always trying to be good, but never quite succeeding. You were a free spirit, but your body was wooden. You would rather be spending the day horsing around, but your father, Geppeto, the wood carver who carved you, thought you should go to school and learn a sense of responsibility. All you wanted was to be a boy, a real boy. But first you would have to prove yourself brave, unselfish and truthful.

Sometimes I wonder, are you the hero of a morality tale that is meant for adults, but disguised to look like a children’s story. How could your story be meant for children? Unless we want to scar them for life.

You throw a hammer and kill the Talking Cricket; you show no sense of responsibility or morals. You’re like the Shin-Chan of Fairy Tales. I’d keep you a mile away from the nearest child. But perhaps that’s what gets our attention.

Through you, we learn the value of obedience to parents, and fulfilling our place in life. When Geppeto sells his coat to buy you the A-B-C book, you learn the truth about love. Other adventures follow, and they, in turn, serve to temper your youthful enthusiasm, and teach you some lessons. Nothing like life to hammer lessons into our wooden heads.

Yes, we’re real, but we have ‘wooden’ heads too.

Pity our noses don’t function as lie detectors!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Dear Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist, 
Parish Workhouse, 
C/o Charles DIckens

Dear Oliver,

From the moment, you held out your bowl to Mr Bumble, and in a thin, frightened voice, said, “Please, Sir, I want some more,” I felt for you. I felt your hunger and pain as you struggled through the brutality of life and the horrible living conditions that prevailed in your orphanage in the London of Victorian times.

Left to yourself, you would have stifled your hunger pangs. You would never have dared ask for another portion of gruel. But egged on by the older boys in the workhouse, you had no choice.

Yours was the classic rags-to-riches story and so well did Dickens challenge your young life that I expected your struggle to flounder at every step of the way.

The very name that the workhouse official chose for you, “Twist,” had much to do with the twist of the hangman’s noose and that is why everyone insisted that you would come to a bad end. So much prejudice, and all because of the particulars of your birth over which you had no control. 

Your life offers us clear evidence that nature can have the upper hand over nurture. In spite of having spent your formative years amid the stifling environment of a workhouse and then living among thieves, you did not let the stain besmirch your character. You spent your whole life in the novel fighting unknowingly against that prejudice. 

The best part about you is that you did it so effortlessly, without giving the matter a second thought, suffering no agonies of conscience. There were some things you couldn’t bring yourself to do; it was as simple as that.

In spite of living among thieves and seeing the seediest side of life, you retained your innocence. In fact, you didn’t even realize that Fagin was teaching those boys to steal. You imagined it was some kind of a game. Realisation struck only when the Artful Dodger picked Mr Brownlow’s pockets and left you behind to suffer the consequences.

Dickens keeps the heat turned high upon you, as you battle one difficult circumstance after another. Being an orphan with no one to love you is bad enough. You must suffer additionally the shame of people calling you names, disregarding your innate goodness and assuming the worst of you.

Through you, we readers, well-fed, -clothed and comfortable in our lives, get an idea of the social injustice that prevailed in the London of your era. It isn’t much different in the times and places we live in, but we’re so comfortable and snug in ourselves that we tend to forget that. And then along you come to remind us. Perhaps that is what Dickens intended when he created you.

Fortunately, everything ends well for you. I don’t know how much I could have taken if the sufferings thrust upon you went on too long. As it is, at nearly 600 pages, there’s more than someone like me can reasonably bear.

Thank God, there was a happy ending in sight.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dear Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew, 
River Heights, 
C/o Carolyn Keene 

Dear Nancy Drew,

Growing up, girls of my age didn’t have to look far to find feisty teenage girl role models. We had you.

You were smart and clever, and not afraid to follow up with clues and solve crimes, even if it put your life in danger. You had courage and a thirst for adventure.

I used to follow your adventures avidly, exchanging books with my friends, and furiously ticking off the books I read.

I admired your solid friendships with your crime solving partners Bess Marvin and George Fayne. What I liked about you was the solid middle ground you treaded. Chasing criminals didn’t turn you into a tomboy, nor were you too feminine for comfort. Even though you were “unusually pretty,” you didn’t allow your looks to straitjacked you into traditional roles. You were someone that I could relate to.

You had a boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, but that fact was merely incidental. Romance was on the backburner and the adventure of solving mysteries took centre stage.

You were always friendly and you went boldly forward in your quest for adventure, thinking nothing of putting a few things in the boot of your car and sallying forth. Your only weapons were your intuition, independence and intelligence.

When you were not being an amateur sleuth, you would participate in athletics and enjoy the arts. Sometimes you would volunteer, but none of these activities took up too much time. Somehow unsolved mysteries always found their way to you.

Along the way, you became a mythic supergirl for whom nothing was impossible. You could ride horses, change tires, drive superbly, fix motorboats, and walk fast and far without showing any signs of tiredness. You were a good painter, and spoke French and played tennis expertly. You danced like a dream, and you could be cool in any crisis. You showed us that there was nothing a girl couldn’t do.

I loved the fact that your father, a famous lawyer, respected your abilities and took fierce pride in them. Sometimes he discussed his cases with you, proving that he valued your opinions. Backed by an indulgent dad, you went ahead, living your dreams and achieving your goals. You didn’t have to labour under parental demands that you return home by a certain hour or else…

You had no responsibilities, except those that came of being the sole woman in the house, and even those, your housekeeper Hannah managed admirably. You didn’t have to turn in any school assignments or study for tests.

Living in a suburban home, protected, even cosseted, by my family, I longed to experience that kind of freedom and independence.

Within the pages of your book, you lived the life I longed to live.

Lost in the pages of your book, I lived your life vicariously.

What I didn’t like was how you changed in later years. You became more feminine, less assertive. You needed to be rescued yourself sometimes. Your confidence gave way to fear.

Why did you have to change?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dear Miss Marple

Miss Marple, 
St Mary Mead, 
C/o Agatha Christie

Dear Miss Marple,

I first met you in The Sleeping Murder. I was blown away at the thought that an old lady had been able to solve a crime that had remained unsolved for 20 years, one that the smartest policemen on the force had failed to solve. 

For a while I made it my life’s ambition to become a great detective like you, one that would effortlessly solve cases without getting her mittens dirty.

Knit, purl, solve crime, knit, purl. 
Without losing a stitch.

But then I changed my mind (I was 14), deciding it was cooler to be a spy than an elderly detective. Besides, I didn’t know how to knit.

While my choice of future profession kept changing, my fondness for you remained. I still admire the way you went about solving murders, even cold cases, by dint of your shrewdness and intelligence, your acute powers of observation, your understanding of human nature and its weaknesses and follies, its strengths and peculiarities, and your ability to see connections where others might see unrelated events.

For a woman who has lived in the same tiny village all her life, you displayed an amazing worldliness that others could learn from. Perhaps it stems from your remarkable ability to observe human nature at work and play and to glean lessons from it.

Most people make the mistake of underestimating you, of assuming that you are fluffy, a harmless old lady, but it’s an image that works in your favour, doesn’t it?

As an elderly spinster, I guess you’re used to people assuming that you are nosy. Your three favourite interests in life, knitting, gardening and gossip, do much to encourage that impression. What criminals fail to realize is that even when you seem occupied with one of these interests, your mind is at work, and that with every stitch, you are putting clues together, solving a crime.

Gardening could also be turned to your advantage for it was “as good as a smoke screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses can always be turned to account.” As for gossip, “There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

You made the solving of a crime seem such an easy and genteel occupation as you sat there munching on cakes along with your afternoon tea. But your mind is abuzz, because “Nothing is ever as it seems."

In spite of busying yourself with dreadful things like murders and the ruthlessness of humankind, you remained a kindly person always. At least, from the second story onward. I’m so glad Christie decided to make that change. In the first story, you were a busybody who enjoyed gossip for gossip’s sake.

You were so good that your creator, the great Christie herself once said, “If I were at any time to set out on a career of deceit, it would be of Miss Marple that I should be afraid.”

That’s saying something.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dear Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid, 
the Underwater Kingdom, 
C/o Hans Christian Andersen

Dear Little Mermaid,

Of all the characters I have ever read in fairy tales, you were the only one that struck a chord with me. You were the only one that didn’t win the heart of Prince Charming. 

Your peers became princesses and lived happily ever after. One kiss and their lives changed for the better. You were the only one who started out with a great life and gave it all up for love. 

True love. 

But nary a happy ending in sight.

We humans are blessed with a soul, and most of us don’t spare a thought to its sustenance. You were willing to give up your life of privilege in the sea, your very identity as a mermaid, to be with a human prince, whose fickle memory held nothing for you.

But you were only a mermaid. How were you to know that we humans are quick to receive and slow to give?

You committed the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of your love for the prince. You saved his life when he fell off the ship, and he, foolish prince, fell in love with the girl who discovered his insensible body at the temple, right after you rescued him and left him there. The temple girl turned out to be a neighbouring princess, and the prince allowed his gratitude to turn into love, never realizing that he owed that gratitude to you.

The human prince saw what he wanted to see. The debt he owed you piled up, as you gave up your voice, the sweetest and most enchanting in the sea kingdom, in exchange for legs. You bore the pain that came from walking on your new legs. Willingly. Punishing yourself for love. 

All you had was hope. That the prince would fall in love with you, and that in marrying you, a part of his soul would sustain you.

But the story didn’t end the way you hoped it would. Even then you had a solution. 

Your four sisters cut off their beautiful long hair, and gave it to the Sea Witch in order to obtain a reprieve for you in the shape of a dagger. Here I must digress. 

Your sisters too offer a shining example of the self-sacrificing love that you displayed so exemplarily. Your parents have raised fine young women indeed. If only the menfolk deserved your goodness.

All you had to do was to plunge it into the heart of the prince and let the drops fall on yourself in order to return to your life as a mermaid. Did you accept that solution?

No, for that was not your way.

My only grouse: after all you did, I think you deserved to get a soul right away, instead of transforming into an ethereal spirit. Why make you serve time, doing good deeds for another 300 years, in order to win yourself the ultimate prize and enter the Kingdom of God?

If I were the author, you wouldn’t have had to wait.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Dear Kit Walker (Phantom)

Kit Walker aka the 21st Phantom, the Ghost who walks, the Man who cannot die
Skull Cave, Deep in the heart of Bangalla, Africa
C/o Lee Falk

Dear Kit Walker

As kids, most of my friends were fascinated by you. The fact that you were 21st in a series of Phantoms going back in time to the year 1536 added considerably to your appeal.

The makers took pains to build on your ancestors’ stories, which I found fascinating, influencing my views about the significance of the back story. But there were several inconsistencies in history and storylines so I always skipped them in favour of you.

The idea that the first Phantom swore to fight evil on the skull of his father’s murderer was an interesting part of the premise. Each new Phantom accepted the responsibility from his dying father, swearing the oath,
“I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice, in all its forms, and my sons and their sons shall follow me.”

Yours was a crusading tradition steeped in patriarchy, but back then I never questioned it. I did occasionally wonder what would happen if a particular Phantom sired only daughters or if a son refused to take on the legacy of crime fighting.

The skull was to leave its mark on many aspects of your universe, the Skull Cave and the Mark. Roughnecks learned to fear the mark left by your signet ring when it collided violently with their external anatomy. Legend said the mark never left.

You had another ring with the “Good Mark,” with which you marked those who were under your protection. Even the animals of the jungle recognized the mark. 

Where possible, you would be accompanied by Devil, your wolf, and Hero, your horse, but otherwise you were a one-man army. You had no superpowers; you were all too-human, and had to rely on your wits, your physical strength and intelligence and a few weapons to fight crime.

I wondered sometimes whether the skintight costume did not inhibit easy movement and how on earth could you see through a mask that had no slots through which your eyes could peek.

I used to think it was very cool to trick people into thinking you were immortal when actually you weren’t. I guess the costume was needed to maintain your identity. But didn’t you ever realize that you were compromising your identity by relying on the tom-tomming of the jungle drums for your communication? There was always a possibility that the secret might leak.

After all, no one but your family and closest friends, certainly not us readers, has ever seen your face unmasked. For jungle lore decreed that those who see your face will “die a terrible death.”

Those jungle sayings were a hoot. 

“Phantom has a thousand eyes and a thousand ears.” 

“Phantom moves with the power of a charging bull elephant.” 

Phantom moves softer than a stalking great cat.”

I realize today that those sayings couldn’t possibly have been true, but they added to your legend, and that was all that mattered.

For those who came in late, the Ghost who walks still walks.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Dear Jeeves

Jeeves, Reginald, 
Valet par excellence, 
C/o Bertie Wooster, London, 
C/o PG Wodehouse,

Dear Jeeves,

There used to be a famous search engine that purported to answer all questions thrown at it. It was called Ask No doubt a fitting tribute to your prodigious talents.

They call themselves now. No offence to you.

But for you, that silly, ever-idle Bertie Wooster would have long since stumbled over his own feet and failings, married more than twice over and haunted forever by the sceptre of sundry mothers-in-law and formidable aunts.

The Junior Ganymede Club lists you as a valet, but Bertie knows you are more than that. You are a lifesaver, problem solver, creator of coincidences, remover of offending objects, pacifier of Aunts and rescuer from tiresome social obligations.

And after achieving all of that you still have time and energy for the mundane stuff of waking the guy up, and making sure he is fed and dressed. As Bertie once said of you, “If the call comes, he can buttle with the best of them." 

You’re not a great talker but you still manage to pack in quite a bit with your “Well, Sir,” “Yes, Sir,” “No, Sir,” and “Indeed, Sir.” You are, in fact, the epitome of what constitutes the gentleman’s manservant. Faultless attire, unlike children, you speak only when spoken to, and you glide noiselessly in and out of rooms. 

But you are not afraid to speak your mind. Bertie is a member of the upper classes, but you have charm, wit and intelligence on your side, no doubt as a result of all the fish you love eating. You’re always seeking to improve Bertie, and are flabbergasted when he suddenly develops an unreasonable attachment to such items as an alpine hat, a scarlet cummerbund, a garish vase, or purple socks.

The one thing that flaps your unflappable disposition is when people commit crimes against fashion. Once Bertie turned out in a white dinner jacket, you said, “I assumed it had got into your wardrobe by mistake, Sir, or else that it has been placed there by your enemies.” Another time you saw little horseshoes on someone’s tie and had a momentary panic attack. 

There is little you don’t know. Of course, you’re modest and you won’t gloat, but I’m amazed at the amount of information stored in your head. At any moment, you can speak with authority and accuracy on a range of unrelated subjects such as literature and academic subjects, not to mention the scientific study of newts, horse racing, car maintenance, hangover remedies, etiquette, and the one thing that nobody else can figure out, what women want. When you want relaxation, you read Dostoyevsky and Spinoza and quote from Shakespeare.

With all the learning stuffed in your head, why you would choose to be a valet to the infinitely silly albeit lovable doofus that is Bertie, when you could have been anyone, I do not know. But I suppose there isn’t a dull moment on the job.

And of course, Bertie is grateful, and that counts for something.


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