Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

When I was 9, I was invited to a birthday party. It was my
neighbour Vivek's 6th birthday. His parents had invited a whole
bunch of kids from the neighbourhood. There was a birthday cake
and we all sang "Happy Birthday to You." Afterwards, there was
cake and chips and orange squash for everybody. There were games.
That night, I crossed the street and returned home in a daze.

I made plans. I would call everyone in the street. I would
cajole my father - who, I thought, would never refuse me anything
- to get a cake. It would be white and pink and it would have
candles on it. I would blow them out as people sang "Happy
Birthday" to me. At some level, I seem to have understood orange
squash for everyone might be too much to ask for. But maybe
people would get me presents.

My birthday came. I pulled out an old shawl and laid it on the
floor, thinking it would make a good carpet. My mother asked me
what I thought was doing. I explained. In a few well-chosen
words, she told me not to be a fool. On my birthday, I would get
new clothes. I would go to the temple and pray that I would be a
good boy. She would make potatoes and lemon rasam. And that was
that. All that stuff about cakes and squash - we didn't do that
kind of thing. Now, I should stop thinking of all this
extravagance and go take my bath.

I did get new clothes, and my sister bought me a book, but I
still remember going to bed feeling gutted.

So where did all this come from? What triggered this
especially crappy memory of a especially crappy birthday?

There is an scene in Neil
Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane
where the narrator
talks about his seventh birthday, which "had consisted of a table
with iced biscuits and a blancmange and cake and fifteen empty
folding chairs."

Ocean is - hard to describe. It is a fantasy. There are shades
of Stephen King and Diana Wynne Jones (especially
The Pinhoe Egg
) in it. I don't know whether Gaiman put in
specific incidents from his own childhood - or just dreamed it
all up, but it seems very personal. It's probably the effect of
the first person narrator - the first time, I think Gaiman has
used one, but you also get the feeling that "this was true. this
happened. maybe not really in the same way it does in the book,
but close enough"

Spoilers, maybe

It reads like a fairy tale. But not one of those
happily-ever-after fairy tales.

Once upon a time, there was a boy. He didn't have many
friends, this boy, but he made friends with a strange girl. The
boy had a tough life, but he didn't know it. One day, the boy got
into trouble. Some of it was of his own doing. He was a
frightened little boy and frightened little boys don't always do
smart things. Some of it was because of things beyond his
control, and the adults in his life let him down. The girl saved
the boy, but it didn't end happily. The happiest thing about it
was that the boy forgot, but he also never forgot.

That is about the gist of it, but obviously, there's a great
deal more to the book than that. There are the narrator's
parents, and the boy's terror as they seem to drift apart; his
terror at his fathers anger. And there is Ursula Monkton, who
doesn't have to make you swallow bilgewater or cut your foot off
with an axe to be utterly terrifying. There are the hunger birds,
like The Dark Half's psychopomp sparrows. And there are the
Hempstocks - whoever or whatever they are.

There's no happy ending - but there is a possibility of hope.
Granny Weatherwax may believe that everything is a test, but
Mrs Hempstock says "You don't pass or fail being a person." As an
answer, its unsatisfying, but its also the only thing we get.

It's not a children's book, of course. Or atleast, it's not a
book that I would have read as a child. As a seven-year-old, I
was reading The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys and Billy
Bunter and Enid Blyton. I doubt that I would have even enjoyed it
in my teens - when I was reading both Ludlum and "serious"
literature. But now, as a forty-three-year old, the book really
speaks to me, never more so when it comes to remembering an
imperfect childhood.

There's a line, "I was not happy as a child,although from time
to time, I was content." It's a simple line, a statement of fact,
but it ... resonates. And isn't that what art is about? Making
that connection?


Tripping on Doctor Who, so it was a pleasure to discover the classic series available on Dailymotion.
Here's the episode that kicked it all off
An Unearthly Child

And this is a brilliant set of playlists of a number of the classic adventures - from Hartnell on.

And there's also Dangermouse.
He's the greatest. He's fantastic. Whenever there's danger he'll be there.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Return to Sanctuary

I've been playing Diablo 3 for the last fortnight, pretty much non-stop. The PC version was pretty hard to get, but good old Venus managed to get me a copy of the XBox version a week after release, so its been all about Tristram, Caldeum and the Arreat plateau almost every minute I can spare.
I was 28 when I first played Diablo. I picked it up in Landmark and I think I got till the penultimate level - I fought Archbishop Lazarus and maybe even killed him. I'm sure I did not fight Diablo the first time around. I played it without really getting into it. At that time, my nieces were like and 8 and 3 years old and I was much more into playing Prince of Persia 2 - with Malu sitting on my lap, watching the "red prince", as she called him, wade through skeletons and slither under slicing blades. It was only after I went to Hyderabad that I really got hooked by Diablo. This time it was Diablo 2. I bought the second game, and was blown away. I was working in Satyam at the time and had rented an apartment in Ameerpet. Rented furniture, empty rooms - pretty spartan. But I had a PC and a TV and a DVD player, so everything I needed was right there.
I loved it. From the first quest in the Den of Evil where you meet Corpsefire the zombie, your first superunique, to the final level in hell. The green fields and caves of the first act - meeting that little blue bastard Rakansihu, who diarrhea'd lightning and moved frustrating faster than your mouse; Treehead Woodfist, who hit like a truck; Bishibosh the Shaman, the resurrector of Shamans; bloody Blood Raven, zipping around the screen; the Countess and her minions, who dropped the first rune I ever found; Andariel herself, spidery, nipple ringed with her poison nova; Radament the mummy, another fucking poisoner, the huge Coldworm the Burrower, lying surrounded by minions; Duriel - oh Christ - fucking Duriel, moving like a snake and hitting like a battering ram - and freezing you as he does it over and over and over; the Fetishes in Act III, swarming all over you while one of their number climbs on the shoulders of another while breathing flame at you and Witch doctor Endugu, waiting for you at the lowest level of the Flayer Dungeon, infested with soul killers and Stygian Watchers. And there was the fight with the council members in the temple: Geleb Flamefinger, Toorc Icefist and the other guy - where the only strategy that works is the "Run Away" And then on to hell itself- where you make your way past Hadriel into the Chaos Sanctuary and open the seals. I still remember the Oblivion. The Infector of Souls was a joke,  The Grand Vizier of Chaos was tough but Lord DeSeis - oh man, he was the absolute pits. I believe that he was nerfed later, but when I played him - first as a paladin, he would kill me in seconds. And there was big red himself. With his streams of fire and that bloody red lightning, the bastard made me run for cover into the cathedrals entry way and town portal something like every 10 seconds.
Fuck, the amount of time I spent on that game! I would return from work at around 10:30 and think, "OK, just a couple of hours" and the next thing you know, it's 4:00 am.
And then I bought the box-set. This one.

Yes, that was just one box
The opening cutscene blew my mind.
 It doesn't seem like a big deal now, but then, back in 2001, it blew me away - especially the old Barbarian at the gates of Sescheron. Irritation, curiosity, shock, terror, resignation and weak defiance chase across his face - not at all bad for 800x600 resolution. And Baal himself - ghibbering and gleeful, turning the old man into chunky giblets, giggling all the time.
So now I had two more character classes to try out, and more baddies on to kill. Almost a year went that way.
Looking back, I realise that despite all this obsessive playing, I never was close to hardcore. My best character was a level 80-something assassin, but I never lasted very long in Hell mode. I think (I may be completely wrong) that I made it past the first couple of acts on Hell, but I got tired of dying so often and losing my experience and money that I finally gave the game up.
I left Satyam in 2002 and left the box set with my nephews. A few months later, my cousin tells me "What have you done? All my son does is play that game - for hours at an end, while his textbooks gather dust." I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction. I had passed the torch on.
Anyway, about DIII. I'm 43 years old. My eyesuight is going. My reflexes are nowhere near what they were 15 years ago, when I first entered the town of Tristram, one one 640x480 pixelated night.
So, now I play on the console.It's a lot easier. I'm playing the demon hunter, who looks like this. I didn't want to start with the melee characters.
And she totally kicks ass
So, I've played for about a week now. I've completed the normal run, on normal difficulty. The art is a combination of D1 and D2. Tristram is darker - it's always night-time. The monster enchantments now include stuff like "Vortex", which pulls you in from afar;"Jailer", which locks you in a force circle or some kind; "Plagued", where you have to dodge green pools of poison and "Nightmare", which is just good old D&D  "Fear".
It's smooth, the loot keeps falling, you find rares and legendary items at reasonable frequencies. The dialogue is not much, but the story is a great deal better than the first two versions. And it's enough to keep an old fogie happy for a long time.
//The only problem? I have GTA V lying unwrapped on my table

Monday, 9 September 2013

Giovanni Guareschi

My first encounter with Guareschi was "The Apple Tree Complex". It was an extract from "The House that Nino Built," his account of his life with his wife and kids. The Apple Tree Complex mostly featured his daughter (he called her the Duchess).
I think there is such a thing as a 'textbook curse.' If a story appears in a school textbook, it effectively kills off all curiosity about the story's  author for a long time. Victor Canning, Mark Twain - how many  did I put off reading because their stuff had appeared in the Gul Mohar reader?
Anyway, when I was in Biella, I mentioned Guareschi to Gianni - I dont remember the context - and Gianni told me to check out the Don Camillo books. I made a mental note but nothing came of it until a few months ago.
I was in Blossoms, as usual - whenever the office gets a bit much, I take refuge there - and
in the shelf behind the makeshift counter were to Guareschis - both hardbacks with distinctive yellow dust jackets, both in terrible condition. I grabbed them - at 500 Rs each, they seemed to be bargains. The books were
Don Camillo and the Devil
Don Camillo meets Hell's Angels

I don't know what I was expecting, but I was completely taken by the first story. Don Camillo is a priest in a village in Italy's Po valley. He desperately wants to get rid of a hideous statue of a saint, a six-foot terracotta monstrosity that was modeled "waist down with a shovel, and and dusted waist up with a chicken feather." One night, he decides enough is enough and struggles and smuggles the statue out of the church and drowns it in the river. Unfortunately for him, he is seen by one of Peppone's men. Peppone is the communist mayor of the village, and he has a long standing rivalry with Don Camillo - the representative of the evil papacy. The next day Peppone and his main raise a huge outcry about the villain who dared to steal the of the sainted Babila. They track the vehicle that took the statue from the church to the river. The entire village helps in raising the statue and soon, it is back at its old post in the church.
Peppone knows full well that it was Don Camillo who dumped the statue he keeps that to himself. Instead, he gives this speech when the statue is returned. "Father, the people's callous but honest hands have brought you back the venerable image of their protectress, Saint Babila, stolen by some sacrilegious criminal but washed and purified in the waters of our country's mightiest river." All poor Don Camillo can do is look daggers at Peppone.

Most of the stories are either like this - or about the eccentricities of individual villagers, there are romances between communists and catholics, there are couples who claim to be living in sin, in defiance of social convention - but who actually got secretly married before living together. The village sees floods and droughts and life goes on. Stalin is replaced by Malenkov and Kruschev; Peppone struggles with change and Don Camillo deals with a recalcitrant and free spirited niece, but most of the books are a tender look at life in Italy in the post war years. There are some really tragic stories as well - there is a story about a horse that is guaranteed to make you cry. The thing is, they are written with love. And it shows.

Also many thanks to +Anu Hasan - for getting me two more Camillos - and The House that Nino Built. I'm reading The Apple Tree Complex again. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

No toon like an old toon...

Around the world in 80 days. Just because of...Doordarshan
Thank you, Malathy Girish, whoever you are

The entire playlist is here. We never did see Fogg marrying Belinda, though, did we?

"The motto of the wise is: be prepared for surprises"