Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A Dystopian Understatement

It was almost dystopian.

Mr. Basu was known for overstatement, but even by his standards this was an utter overstatement. Except it wasn’t a statement. It was a general surmise he had made but not articulated. So, by his standards, it was actually a gross understatement.

The only reason he hadn’t made the understated overstatement was that he was too stunned by the sight that met his eyes. In spite of the loud thump that had woken him up at the wheel, he could see nothing in front of the car. He closed the door with a loud whump, and then instantly regretted it when the side mirror shook threateningly upon its one remaining hinge. The one remaining hinge was becoming less reliable by the minute and was clearly on the verge of breaking off.

He walked over to the front, trying his best to regulate his breaths. He failed spectacularly in this endeavor in spite of the visual assurance of seeing no one in front of his car, as the more disturbing possibility of something beingunder his car had just occurred to him.

As it transpired, there was something under his car. He had hit a road sign asking drivers to “Drive Safe”.

He extracted the sign from under his car and examined his car. The bumper was a bit scratched, but the budget-oriented nature of the sign meant that it hadn’t been able to do much damage. The budget-oriented nature of the sign also meant that Mr. Basu, a very much midlife-crisis-plagued man, could easily straighten it out.

Mr. Basu made to throw it away and then saw that the budget-conscious government had painted another message on the back of it. The message on the other side read “Sign Not in Use”. In fact, what Mr. Basu thought was the back of the sign was its front. The road security agency had installed a sign at that spot since it had had strict directives to maintain a sign/5 km ratio on the highways. Someone had pointed out that the sign was blank, upon which the agency had painted “Sign Not in Use” upon it – the only message that seemed to make sense for a sign installed in the middle of nowhere. When the self-defeating irony of the message had been pointed out, the agency had proceeded to simply turn the sign around and paint an equally meaningless message on the other side.

The rather literal bureaucratic interpretation of the sign/5 km directive had also resulted in several signs that warned drivers of speed bumps that they had passed a few kilometers back (less than 5 kilometers, of course), the imminent presence of narrow bridges where there weren’t any, and the start of a mountain road just as the road started to descend. The road safety agency had even moved the location of several – 3 at the last count – toll booths so that they could coincide with their signs.

Mr. Basu didn’t know any of this, of course, but he still thought it was dystopian that a road sign should proclaim that it was not in use. He didn’t say it out loud, chiefly because he wasn’t entirely sure what the word ‘dystopian’ meant, and, more importantly, there was no one around to say it to.

Having ascertained that the road sign was the only object he had hit in his slumberous drive, Mr. Basu finally managed to get his breath under control. He then compulsively smoothed his sleeve and rolled it above his wrist, over which it had compulsively drooped. He always wore perfectly tailored clothes, but somehow they didn’t always seem to be perfectly tailored for him.

Having thrown away the sign in the shrubbery at the side of the road, thus inadvertently setting off a process that would result in at least three road safety agency meetings and the sacking of one supervisor, Mr. Basu got back into the car and sank into the driver’s seat.

He had fallen asleep at the wheel and that was not okay. He had to make sure it didn't happen again. He closed his eyes for a while and did a meditation trick an old girlfriend had taught him. Then he remembered that she had left him for his brother, and this woke him up better than anything else could have.

He turned on his car radio and cranked up the volume. He shut the door with an unusually vigorous swing and turned on the engine. As he drove back on to the road, he glanced at the side mirror and realized that the mirror had finally come off, because of which he hadn’t seen that the pickup truck was already crashing into the side of his car.


The road safety agency rep was on his way to replace the sign with one that said “Sign Now in Use”. He had been driving the pickup for hours and in the budget-conscious pickup with no air-conditioning, this was turning out to be surprisingly soporific. Apart from being awake, there was nothing he could have done when the sloppily driven sedan had swerved suddenly into his path.

It was almost dystopian.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Importance of Distractions

Distractions may have garnered a notoriety in the world of media, but as this mention of a shiny blue elephant demonstrates, distractions can ironically be excellent at keeping a reader engaged.

That, weirdly, ties in with Bill Bryson's Made in America, which I just finished. Longtime readers of this sentence will be aware of what this sentence is supposed to be about: Bryson's literary style and the value of distractions.

In a world of increasing brevity, Bill Bryson has managed to remain a trans-generational favorite. Even his books about seemingly boring topics, such as Made in America and A Short History of Nearly Everything, have been popular. A lot of that has, in my opinion, to do with the emphasis he lays on what would be considered by many as distractions. This, among other things such as the lack of a second and third volume, prevents Made in America from becoming a modern take on The American Language. No, don't you dare spoil the point I've made by pretending you know what that is.

The book begins with, as any good tale should, at the beginning: the Mayflower's arrival in the New World. Then on, it tracks the development of the language through the nascent country's early struggles, the nascent country actually becoming a nascent country, the nascent country's rapid march into middle-age rotundity, the surprisingly 1960s-esque 1880s, the World Wars, and the subsequent Space Age.

However, rather than writing a scholarly opiate detailing the development of American English from prepubescence to its - only slightly pimply, to be frank - form, Bryson charts the 400-year journey of the language in anecdotes, tangential references, and a meaningless third term that completes the semantic symmetry of threes in this sentence. This technique helps maintain the pace of the narrative - very easy to drop with such topics - and allows the writer to include more information without it being taxing for the reader.

When writing about the contribution of the aviation industry to the English language, for instance, Bryson dedicates a needless number of pages to how the Wright Brothers almost went uncredited as the inventors of airplanes. When describing the contribution of the car world, the stunningly unsuccessful Ford Edsel's conception is detailed even when it led to the addition of exactly zero words to American English.

This, an intrinsic part of Bryson's writing, ties in with the modern rise of microblogging surprisingly well. Like a concise description of a photo on Instagram but, one hopes, unlike the frankly useless smorgasbord of #narcissistic #hashtags on a Facebook check-in, perhaps the future of the written word lies as essentially a collection of microblogs, perhaps only tenuously tying in with the central tenet but entertaining nonetheless.

Unless, of course, you disguise 90's Bollywood movie scripts as novels and think you know What Young India Wants.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

3 Ways to Fit in a Daily Dose of Reading

Reading is a pastime for a privileged few who think it's okay to refer to themselves as the privileged few. While most take up books as a last resort, these privileged few (nobody objects if I keep using the term, right? No? Good!) start to rot without one. They turn to their mobile phones in desperation and usually fail to find in the virtual world the company they desire. They turn to their TV screens and manage to pass a while, but eventually crave the lignin-infused company of a book.

In spite of their dreams of leading a life filled with books at every step in a house filled with books with someone who shares this fantasy, routine life interrupts harshly. Finding time to read amidst the daily rush can then become a chore itself. Here's the three best ways you can fit in a bout of reading in the grind of the modern 9-6 life.

The Lunch Break

If you work in a place with a lunch break smaller than an hour, my sympathies are with you. Luckily most of us don't and have an uninterrupted block of time in the afternoon. While I'm not advocating abandoning lunch - well, not just advocating abandoning lunch - it's the easiest thing in the world to read while you eat. Unless you need company while you eat, in which case you're probably wasting more of the lunch break than you need to.

Be bold enough to use the overachiever's privilege to extend your lunch breaks beyond the allotted amount. But maintain the fine line between being an overachiever deserving a bit of laxity and an inefficient break-hogger. Oh, and make sure you overachieve.

The Waits of Modern Life

Unless you have ordered some really fast food, you probably have to wait up to 15 minutes for takeaways. Unless you are married or live with your parents, you probably have to order takeaways more than once a week. This can add up to half an hour of reading time. Add in other places that have lines, and you can extract a couple hours of reading time per week without breaking a sweat.

If you use public transport for your commutes, you probably get around an hour every day. Instead of looking out the window at scenes you see everyday, dive into your paper-backed companion. Even if you don't get a seat, reading while standing is not as hard as we may imagine. Give it a go.

The Game of the Throne

If you suffer from constipation, it may be hard to find a silver lining. But if you are a reader and constipated, you've discovered the key to making the best out of something that literally forces you to sit motionless for a considerable time. Grab a book and at least the problem of boredom is eliminated! The other one, well, I could perhaps recommend a good thriller to shock your systems into action...

Read a book instead of watching the same illegally downloaded shows over and over again. Instead of torturing your mind with soap operas. Instead of torturing your eyes with video games. Grab a book any time you can, in any filler, any pause. I promise, you won't regret it.