Archive for June, 2012

The genius of Ray Bradbury

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Mint, 7 June 2012

Ray Bradbury is dead, at 91. “Every child is an artist,” Pablo Picasso once said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” If ever there was a writer whose imagination always remained as unfettered as a child’s, it was Bradbury.

We love slotting, categorization. Kurt Vonnegut was writing for about two decades before anyone in the literary firmament figured that he was not “just a science fiction writer”. The usual Bradbury obit will mention him as a science fiction author, and refer to Fahrenheit 451, which enjoys highbrow fame as a Francois Truffaut film. Bradbury himself said, more than once: “I’m not a science fiction writer. I’ve written only one book of science fiction—451.” In the few Bradbury books that I own, the publisher’s note classifies him as “one of the greatest writers of fantasy and horror fiction in the world today”.

Well, my description of Bradbury would be a little more simple: he was one of the world’s greatest child-writers. His imagination was as boundless and mysterious as that of Borges, but always full of a wonder very different from the super-polyglot awe of that great blind librarian. His imaginative constructs were uncomplicated—I doubt if he ever cared to read Proust, or Ulysses, either the Greek or the Irish version. Yes, he wrote a lot of horror fiction, and a 2000-word Bradbury story like The Veldt or Jack-in-the-Box can keep you disturbed for much longer than the latest blunt instrument from Stephen King. And whether he wanted to be known as a science fiction author or not, the fact remains that he gave us the Butterfly Effect. An insect flapping its wings in Brazil and causing a typhoon in the South China Sea? The term, though never referred to specifically as such by Bradbury, comes from his short story A Sound of Thunder.

And when he wanted to, Bradbury could outlyricise Scott Fitzgerald, while using less difficult words. Take this passage, from his masterpiece Dandelion Wine (a magical summer seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old):

The courthouse clock chimed seven times. The echoes of the chimes faded. Warm summer twilight here in upper Illinois country in this little town deep far away from everything, kept to itself by a river and a forest and a meadow and a lake. The sidewalks still scorched. The stores closing and the streets shadowed. And there were two moons; the clock moon with four faces in four night directions above the solemn black courthouse, and the real moon rising in vanilla whiteness from the dark east.

In the drugstore, fans whispered in the high ceiling. In the rococo shade of porches, a few invisible people sat. Cigars glowed pink, on occasion. Screen doors whined, their springs and slammed. On the purple bricks of the summer-night streets, Douglas Spaulding ran; dogs and boys followed after.

“Hi, Miss Lavinia!”

The boys loped away. Waving after them quietly, Lavinia Nebbs sat all alone with a tall cool lemonade in her white fingers, tapping it to her lips, sipping, waiting.

“Here I am, Lavinia.”

She turned and there was Francine, all in snow white, at the bottom steps of the porch, in the smell of zinnias and hibiscus. Lavinia Nebbs locked her front door and, leaving her lemonade glass half empty on the porch, said, “It’s a fine night for the movie.”

They walked down the street.

Ray Bradbury never lost his sense of wonder, never believed that there could be anything more marvelously playful than ideas. He told The New York Times some years ago: “When I was born in 1920, the auto was only 20 years old. Radio didn’t exist. TV didn’t exist. I was born at just the right time to write about all of these things.” “That’s the great secret of creativity,” he revealed to someone. “You treat ideas like cats. You make them follow you.” His advice on what to read was typically both simple and enough to keep a man busy for a lifetime. “In your reading,” he said, “find books to improve your colour sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.”

This tribute will be, I suppose, confusing, for anyone who hasn’t read Bradbury. Well, read him, then. Start with the horror stories. But don’t try The Small Assassin if you are expecting a baby.

Bradbury never shut the child up, including all its nightmares and the sort of visions that would send most of us adults scurrying to psychiatrists. Sometimes—only on rare occasions, the grown-up who cherished the kid inside showed through. “We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth,” he once said. Let Bradbury disturb, enchant, touch you. Don’t die of Truth.

Alone in a hotel room

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Mint, 4 June 2012

Is there any good news out there at all? Politics? No. Economy? No. The stockmarkets? Grim scene. The anti-graft crusaders are making a spectacle of themselves. There are even ominous rumblings that the monsoons may be deficient this year. Or is it just the bad news that strikes my eye? After all, Vishwanathan Anand is still world champion, and India managed to get the bronze in the Azlan Shah hockey tournament. And there are lots of discounted holidays on offer across the world.

But, and call me weird if you want, the best most relaxing, rejuvenating and re-etc-ing holiday that I enjoy is when I am alone in a hotel room. Specifically, you are traveling on work, you’ve finished your meetings for the day, you’ve come back to your room, and the flight back the next day is not early in the morning. There is television, there is the book you brought along to read, and there’s room service. Shut the door, and the world vanishes. When you do have to open the door, to let in someone bringing you your dinner, the glimpse of the corridor outside that you get is strangely comforting in its predictable sameness. You could be in any hotel, any city, any country, and the corridor would look the same.

One can spend hours watching unknown television channels in languages you don’t understand, and try to guess what’s going on. Some years ago, I had great fun in a hotel in Venice (yes, I was there on work) watching the Italian version of Kaun Banega Crorepati. The show had clearly fallen on bad times, because during commercial breaks, instead of the usual ads you would expect, the host himself starting peddling some DYI furniture and other stuff which one normally associates with home shopping networks. Evangelist channels, usually not available at home, are also fun, with frenzied people claiming miracles and the preachers then segueing everything neatly into brazen calls for monetary contribution. A few months ago in a Bangalore hotel, I found a channel showing reruns of the notorious Jerry Springer show, where participants confessed to various misdemeanours (usually sexual) and then were set upon by the aggrieved parties. Great stuff to watch on your own, when you have no roles to play and can just regress comfortably in the knowledge that food and wine are just a phone call away.

A friend once told me that what a person does alone in an elevator reveals his true primal urges. Quite possible, but since I have never seen any CCTV footage of elevator goings-on, I have no empirical evidence to go by. Most people, I would imagine, would check themselves out in the mirror. Some would surely make faces at themselves. But an elevator has rather severe space constraints—you can’t, for example, turn cartwheels. There’s also only so much time you have available, unless you press the stop button and risk scrutiny when you finally decided to get out. The nastier type of personality, I am sure, would press the button for every floor before he leaves, so anyone getting in after him would have an interminably long ride to his destination. I can’t imagine much else that you can do in that box to get in touch with your limbic brain or whatever. But I’m sure that’s my limitation. I must ask my friend once more.

Hotel rooms give you more space, time and possibilities. Rock stars have caused legendary destruction to hotel rooms, the late Keith Moon of The Who sort of leading the pack on that one. I suppose, hotel rooms are anonymous enough to let loose your excess violent energy on—you’re not damaging anything that you chose and bought yourself, and at the end of the day, everything can be put on the bill. But in my case, the most attractive possibility that a hotel room offers—and which I chose every time—is that of doing nothing at all, of letting my brain cells amuse themselves on their own in the void. A good comfortable hotel room that you have to yourself for the night exists outside the world and all its distractions. Treat it as a cocoon, turn the TV finally to a dead channel, and go off to sleep with all the remotes close at hand, listening to the lullaby of the static of the snow on the screen. No bad news can get in here.