Architect Vitasta Raina clearly spent a lot of time observing and worrying about life around her, the life of cities, the life that millions had chosen. Here’s an extract from her published fictional novel Writer’s Block that is woven around the imaginary city of Chalet that, with its class wars and segregated living, disconcertingly resembles the cities we live in today.
Vitasta’s writing reminds me that the city is often a metaphor for the society we live in. It’s a mirror, a visual representation of the chaos that we create and experience. All the imagination of urbanists and policymakers is channelised into imposing order on this temerous chaotic creature, The City. Yet it demands so much more than rules and regulations. Love? Belonging? Tolerance?
Ok, time to shut up and let you read….. And do send in that entry to #TheCityasMuse contest to firstname.lastname@example.org by 15th September 2015
Extract: From ‘Writer’s Block’
My name is Roma but in the Chalet City Census 2017 I am listed as C-PUE7/RI/WB6. I am a poet though they often say that I am a cynic. Well, if you spend your childhood questioning the universe and all things therein, by the time you are twenty-eight you are quite enlightened and then you cannot understand why people are pretend puppets. Then as you grow older still you see they only pretend to be puppets because they can exercise free will at any given time. I am only pretending to be a puppet because the multiple choices of Chalet’s free will scare me.
Chalet—the city of numbers. Massive and expansive, her sheer statistics can drive you to acute paranoia.
There are a billion beauty shops in the streets of Chalet and a billion billboards display beautiful people playing blind man’s bluff in a world perpetually riding on Prozac. Smiling, hedonistic and narcissistic, I see Chalet.
There are a billion blue tin roofs below badly built flyovers that connect Chalet to her sorry peri-urban sprawl, and a billion headlights tail each other like electric snakes on her highways. Always moving, north to south, south to north, disturbed, dislocated, with a violent entrance and a volatile exodus, I see Chalet.
I see her billion lights shine from makeshift footpath novelty stores and desperately silent watching windows of her penthouses night after night. Lonely, isolated and abandoned, I see Chalet.
Every second or every hour, I see Chalet as her billion sexless lovers lick the pus of her festering body, feeding on her lemonade-soaked sweat running down the gutters of her gothic churches and the sewers of her stale slums. Every day, as I make mad love to her cold corpse covered in the filth of her billions, I see Chalet.
Chalet’s urban culture is embracing and engulfing; it can consume you whole and then sometimes for no perceptible reason it can cast you aside. We are misguided into believing that the space we occupy on Chalet is defined by us. The truth is that we are distinguished by our place on Chalet. The only options Chalet gives are murder or migration, suicide or suburbia.
Chalet is governed by the Group Housing Builders’ Consortium and by RUMP, the Reformed Urban Manual for Planning. Chalet’s billions are efficiently classified according to their “ability to pay” and “willingness to conform” into three categories: Elegant, Indigent and Parasite. Needless to explain the pecking order, lesser the need to outline the characteristics of the categories.
The RUMP, by application of various anthropometric calculations and architectural standards, has made it possible to establish the degree of differentiation of basic amenities that each category should be provided. Chalet’s Elegants live in high-rise gated estates, while the Indigents are shifted into typecast social housing projects. The Parasites live everywhere in between, along every traffic corridor, in the gutters and the garbage dumps, below the flyovers and on the railway platforms.
I am part of a special category the RUMP has classified as “Refined Indigent.” We are the outcasts of Chalet, misfits because we are educated but not moneyed, scholars but strugglers, not rich enough to be put among the Elegants, and far too genteel to belong with the Indigents. We remain on the fringes of Chalet’s sociology. We have knowledge but we have no voice. We have observations but we must remain without opinions.
For the little things that form the parts and parcels of a huge whole, we are specs floating through the linear networks of this stratified city. I think of myself as a gutter rose. I exist superficially untainted on the surface of the filth but my roots are embedded deep in the many layers of human refuge, trembling when cars zoom past at high speeds, shying away from the men who govern this concentration camp.
I breathe the poison fumes of the traffic and my petals, dust-covered, no longer have any trace of their original color. I think I used to be pink or orange once, but my leaves were definitely green. In Chalet’s concrete jungle, I have spent the better part of my life undoing my original self. And I am not alone. I am not the only one watching her nightmare world unfold day by day gloriously and brazenly corrupt and calculated; nor am I a solitary witness of the games her billions play on her regional sprawl, and I will also not be the sole observer of the game that one day Chalet will play with her billions.
You can check the book out on Amazon
Accompanying three kids between the ages of 8 and 9 to a children’s literary festival is my idea of a fun time. The 5th edition of the Bookaroo brings together a number of writers from across the world to Anandgram, which is an absolutely charming artsy setup between Delhi and Gurgaon.
We reached the event well after it had begun. Utsa, one of the three friends who had come together, clutched tightly her piece of paper that had a list of the sessions of interest to this age group. She was tense that we were missing something. Udai and Medha were rather blank at this point. But the minute we entered the fest, the sheer energy in the space galvanised us into action. The kids jumped straightaway into a fiction writing workshop ‘Writing about your extraordinary life’ conducted by Ovidia Yu from Singapore. A few minutes late, they worked furiously to catch up. They had been asked to build a plot. To identify a hero and a villain, decide on a place and a situation on which to build their narrative that would ultimately perhaps be a book or film. Kids came up with really interesting ideas. I particularly liked the one in which a girl appointed herself the protagonist and her mother the antagonist, and she was charmingly part-apologetic whole saying so. The mother stood nearby, grinning in resignation! Now this girl had the ability to hypnotise people. So she hypnotises her kid brother to clean her room but he does it wrong. And so on…..
Then we moved to a storytelling session. Marcia Williams from the UK is reading Oliver Twist to the kids and telling them about the author’s life and conditions of his times. Marcia illustrates well known books and speaks beautifully. The kids seemed engrossed and asked questions through the narration as well, with Medha getting a pat from Marcia for good questions! All in all, the narration tried to give the kids a good idea of what Victorian England was like. Udai was Marcia’s little helper for a bit, putting up cutouts of Victorian objects on a washing line. After the session, the kids bought a book each and got it autographed by Marcia, who they kept in wait until I had procured them after standing in a long line at the bookstore!
The best session of the day was the last one, in which Michael Heyman and Sampurna Chattarji read nonsense verses, sang nonsense songs and taught kids to make up nonsense words! Udai loved the “Om bathum namah” chant and has been singing it since we left Bookaroo.
It was a pleasant surprise to meet an old college friend Dipang here, besides many other acquaintances. And half of Shokshantar School!
The popularity of something like Bookaroo clearly reflects the huge potential for fiction for children. It also captures the imagination of young educated parents who desperately want their kids to be well read, well spoken and jump at a chance to expose them up new ideas.
I had expected Bookaroo to be enriching, but a little crazy. But it wasn’t crazy at all! It was well organised, except for the food court and the slightly cramped bookstore! There were enough parallel sessions to keep most kids busy and many empty spaces for the others to run around. The November sunshine was warm and the breeze cool. Just the perfect setting to listen to stories and relax!
I am eternally fascinated by the performing arts, but unlike dance and music, theater daunts and entices me at the same time purely because I have little talent for the stage (theatrics in real life is another matter altogether!). Tonight, I watched ‘Chinese Coffee’ at the Epicentre in Gurgaon. Danish Hussain has big shoes to fill when he attempts to direct and act a part played by Al Pacino way back in 1992 on Broadway. Ira Lewis’ script, which takes us through an evening of two failed writers in a heated discussion about their art, their life and their friendship, is a difficult one to perform simply because it required only two actors to sustain an intense performance that slips in and out sarcasm, humor, mimicry and anger with suprising speed. A two-hour long performance by Danish and Vrajesh Hirjee, the latter especially talented and energetic, was well appreciated tonight.
A few things about the play, which revolved around one friend’s reaction to the other’s latest manuscript, struck me particularly. The adaptation we saw today is set in Delhi. At one point, there is a discussion about how this large metropolis does not actually energize us, but sucks the life out of us because by living in it and breathing its polluted air, we are unable to perceive any reality other than this. Or at least that’s how I interpreted the dialogue! I have observed people born and brought up in large cities are genuinely naïve about any other sort of life; worse, they often look down on small town people. I experienced that a bit when I came to Delhi to study architecture for the first time and I was shocked that many of my Delhi-ite classmates were so satisfied with their rather limited worldview!
The other more serious issue and also the one that took the play to its climax is that of the thin line between fact and fiction. What happens when you use real life people as inspiration for fictitious characters and you weave a bit too much of their real life (as confided to you as a friend) in the book? One friend accuses the other, in the play, of ‘stealing his life’! Some years ago, I began on my first and only attempt to write fiction. It was a novella about a group of friends in a big city. Inadvertently, I used a close friend as part inspiration for one of the characters. She, who also is the only one to read this tentative piece of work, saw through this and commented on it, not critically, but as a matter of fact. I was unable to continue the story and haven’t returned to it since, petrified by the thought that I might offend her or borrow more private aspects of her real life for my story! A nightmare in the works it was…..
On a lighter note, the play made several digs at popular fiction, which it clearly classified as trash. I see that kind of attitude among those I follow on twitter, among the literary and artistic type and I can’t stomach Chetan Bhagat either (I don’t knopw why he is always the target, poor guy!). However, I cannot for the life of me decide whether I must mourn the taste of the majority of this country’s reading public (who for some inexplicable reason thrives on self-improvement books, chic flicks and dude flicks!) or accept this as a reality I have no right to be snobbish about!