The Cold Caller (1)

I was reading something about telephone scams yesterday, and it reminded me I wrote this short story a few years ago on that subject. Perhaps you will find it amusing:

The Cold Caller (part 1 of 3)

‘Hello, Mr Williams?’ I began. ‘My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not. Your name is Sahil and you are in 142nd Cross Road, Bangalore, on the second floor of the Maheli Building. You have your back to the window, but if you were to turn around you would have an excellent view out over Lal Bagh Tank and the Botanical Gardens.’

There was a very long silence.

‘Hello? Sahil? Are you still there?’

I very softly put down the receiver, as though I were afraid to disturb something dangerous.

I have a first class degree in English from a very good university, but it is still very difficult to get one of the better jobs. There is so much competition. So, like many of my contemporaries, I have ended up working in a call centre. Here we are required to have a degree, and we are required to speak English like a native, so I am well suited to this job.

I don’t really need to know anything about computers although, like most of my educated peers, I actually know quite a lot about them. But there is always a script. We are trained for two weeks, during which time we have to learn our scripts at home, and then for the first week we always have a supervisor close at hand to help us. The pay is okay, although to earn any good money you must make a set number of sales each day.

How do we make our sales? The customer will buy a Download to fix their computer, which is running too slowly.

And how do we get our information? It is a fairly sophisticated process. Let us say that you are on your computer, and that you open an email that purports to be something that it is not. When you do this, you will download a Trojan – a cookie, really – that does no more than monitor things like speeds and C.P.U. usage on your machine. Don’t worry, that is all that it does. We aren’t in the business of infecting machines with viruses and causing damage to anyone. But this cookie will send us information on the efficiency of your computer.

If your machine is obviously running slowly, then we call you. Telephone number and name from your machine when it was originally registered, extracted by the cookie, of course, plus the machine number. A number and name comes up on my screen, and I call.

Our fix will actually speed up the machine a bit – enough for the user to notice, at least.

I had been doing the job for five months, and doing it quite well, when this happened. I admit that I was quite scared by the episode. After I had put the phone down I sat there for a while, staring ahead, but not really seeing anything. After a few minutes, my supervisor came over to ask me if there was a problem, but I just shook my head and said no, I was taking a couple of minutes’ breather, and he went away again. I went and got myself a coffee from the machine, and then I carried on with my work.

I like Bangalore. So much here is new and modern. It is symbolic of the new India. I’ve got no time for the old superstitions, and I hate the filth and poverty. I left all that behind when I moved here. My parents still live in Delhi, in the house that I was brought up in with my brother and my two sisters. It is in a nice area, but all around this area there is ghastly squalor; the streets are piled with mounds of stinking refuse, the gutters run with sewage and the houses are unworthy of the name.

My father has a good job in a bank, which is how he was able to pay for my brother and I to go to university, but otherwise I suppose that he is typical of the old India. Every morning he makes puja, the ritual laid out by thousands of years of practice, praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, for success in his daily undertakings. The flower petals, the bowls, the bell, the incense, the rice…everything has to be just so, otherwise the ceremony will have no meaning.

And this superstition pervades every part of our lives. My parents insist that they will choose a bride for me, as they have already done for my brother. I will have very little say in the matter; at most I can veto their decision if I can show good reason. But the traditions that still have a powerful hold over our society say that she must be of the right caste, of good family, and that our horoscopes must be compatible. And when all of that has been dealt with, she must bring our family a large dowry.

But I have insisted that I will marry the woman who I love, not somebody chosen for me by others. And, indeed, I have already chosen. This woman, my beloved Raveena, is the sister of one of our software engineers. We met when a group of us had lunch during Diwali last year. Her family, like mine, are traditional, but we represent the modern India; she also has a good job, in a telecommunications company, and between us we will have enough to be comfortable and eventually to raise a family. Of course, our hope is that our parents will come to soften a little when they have grandchildren.

At night, I look out at the lights of all the other apartments in my colony, and I imagine the day that I will bring my wife home. There must be a wedding, of course, for even in modern India that is the way. It may be, though, that ours will be a small affair, with simply a few friends and relatives present. We both know that there will be many in both of our families who will refuse to attend. This saddens me, I admit, for I would love a large, traditional, Indian wedding. We Indians do weddings so much better than anyone else.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow

It’s Been A While

A few weeks, anyway. Over the years, most of you have probably got used to me just disappearing every now and again. There comes a point where everything seems to get too much for me and even reading and commenting on posts becomes too difficult and challenging. I ignore social media except to check occasionally to see if I have any notifications, and whether these can just be ignored. As for writing a blog post, my mind just goes blank.

No snidey comments, please…

But I have been reading – reading voraciously, book after book, for a week or two. Comfort reading, for the most part. Books I know I enjoy and which are not too demanding of the reader. In between times I have made good progress with my novel A Good Place, so I’ve not just been feeling sorry for myself, staring morosely into space, and eating too much.

I’ve done that a bit, though.

I’ve even managed, finally, to take my first visit to the South Downs since the pandemic began. I took a bus down to the East Sussex town of Lewes, and from there spent a few hours walking a big loop up onto the Downs, along the top for a few miles, then back to Lewes. It felt as good as a holiday.

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I’ve written a couple of new blog posts, too, at long last. Well, it’s a bit of a cheat, really – they’re actually a couple of extracts from a travel essay I’ve been writing. I’ll put the first one up in a day or two. But I still feel I need a lot of space to switch off and think, so I apologise now if I don’t do a great deal of visiting other blogs.

If I do visit, of course, I’ll be socially distanced and masked up, so you might not even notice me there.

A Busy Time in West Bengal

For the last couple of months, during Lockdown and its easing, I have spent an awful lot of time up in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal.

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Okay, that’s not strictly true, but for most of that time I have spent my working day revising, re-writing, and editing A Good Place, my novel set in a fictitious hill station there. I have some new characters to weave in, some old ones to remove, and the story line to alter in several major ways, including a different ending.

I finished the first draft some nine months ago, but there were parts I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with then, and my beta reader unerringly picked those out for major revision. I then spent a while thinking about the story line and took out nearly all the final third of the book and chucked it.

That left me with a lot to rewrite.

Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that after I published Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in an Indian village with peopled with all Indian characters, I wanted to write a novel dealing with the British who remained behind in India after partition. A kind of balance to my writing. That was all well and good, but I began writing the novel before I was completely satisfied with the story line, and the more I wrote of it the less I liked it. So I kept changing the story line as I wrote rather than doing what I really should have done, which was delete the whole thing and go away and write something completely different, waiting until I knew what I really wanted to write. But I’m now content that I have the story I want to tell, rather than Just A Story.

Consequently, I have been virtually living in West Bengal during these days, inevitably leading to yearnings to be there in person. Which does nothing to ease the feelings of frustration at enduring the travel restrictions of Lockdown.

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However, one of the advantages of having several projects on the go at once, which I always have, is that I can switch to another for a while when I need to. Last week, then, I spent one day giving a final edit to a short story which gave me the opportunity to spend the day (in my head!) in rural Sussex, which was very welcome. Especially as that is somewhere we can get to now, with a minimum of hassle.

And A Good Place? I’m glad you asked. I think I’m close to finishing the second draft, which will be a blessed relief.

Just so long as my beta reader doesn’t throw her hands up in horror when she reads it…

Wandering

I’m posting this poem again, as it rather illustrates what I’ve personally found particularly frustrating during the recent lockdown. We can go for longer walks now, it is true, but that’s still not the same.

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If I could just wave a wand,

I would wander the world.

With my notebook in hand,

And a bag on my back.

 

I would sleep under hedges,

In hotels and haylofts.

Drink beers under trees,

And eat cheese on the moor.

 

I’d watch clouds over hilltops,

And boats on the ocean.

Shapes and shadows at sunset,

A moon with a view.

 

And I’d write trivial poems

Of snowfall and sunlight,

Birds singing at dawn

And the sounds of a stream.

 

There’s the lure of a skyline,

And skylarks above me,

Wine and woodsmoke my welcome,

At the end of the day.

 

To travel, to journey,

There’s magic in wandering

Over moorland and downland,

Through woods and through fields.

 

The world’s full of wonders

All waiting for wanderers.

Let me follow these paths

For as long as I can.

The poem can be found in my collection The Night Bus, which is available here. should your interest have been piqued by this…

Vikings

Allow me to introduce a new joint venture, a magazine (or zine, as I’m informed we hip youngsters now say):

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The final poem in my recent collection, The Night Bus, is a poem called Vikings, and it is reproduced in this here zine with a series of super illustrations.

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This is a collaboration between myself and my talented friend Mark Prestage. As already indicated the poem is mine, while Mark designed, cut and printed the linocuts.

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Mark also did the hard work of putting the zine together, while I just sat around and drank beer. The zine is printed on 16 pages of high quality paper, in a preliminary edition of 40 numbered copies.

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In the UK the price is £4.50 including postage and packaging, and it can be ordered from my Etsy site: here, or directly from me (just email me) using Paypal. Unfortunately the cost of postage overseas makes it impractical to offer outside of the UK (typically doubling the cost of the zine, or even more).

If people make lots of approving noises, we have ideas for similar projects in the future.

Mark also blogs here: drifting in lower case and twits: twit and is well worth a visit.

In My Head…

For those of us who like to travel and have been under Lockdown for a while, the frustration is obvious.

And some of us, I’m afraid, only like to make things worse for ourselves…

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Working on my novel A Good Place set in the foothills of Northern India, I’m not only writing about that place, but also referring occasionally to books, websites, and my travel journals on the area. Looking at lots of photographs, both my own and others.

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Immersing myself in it inevitably leads to frustration, although I’m making good progress on the book.

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I suppose I only have myself to blame, especially for lingering over the photos.

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But that doesn’t make it any the easier.

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Dammit.

Lockdown Stream of Consciousness

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Here we are in week whatever it is of Lockdown, and I have to say I’m finding it ever so difficult to dream up a new blog post. It’s not that I’m having any difficulty writing, as I’m making good progress with one of my novels. I timetable my day so I write in the morning and don’t allow myself to look at the internet until after lunch. I go out and walk each day, I’m eating well. And I don’t mind the idea of Lockdown as such, since I’m quite a solitary person at the best of times; fond of my own company and never at my best with groups of people.

When it comes to writing a new post, though, I just seem to dry up. I think one reason for this is the major change to everyone’s lifestyles that this crisis has demanded. Not so much the changes to mine, strangely enough, but those of other people. I look at some of the posts I have partly written and think they seem somehow too trite for today. Some others are about journeys or visits to places I love, and I don’t seem to have the heart to finish them. Perhaps it’s all a bit too raw, too painful. I rarely write political pieces, and have even less enthusiasm at the moment than usual. Again, the politics are either too trite, or just incredibly infuriating. And there are more than enough bloggers covering the infuriating stuff, even if I wanted to.

Write a parody? I do, occasionally. But a parody of the Coronavirus Crisis seems tasteless, and both our inept government and the unpleasant fool in the White House are already parodies of themselves. I could do a humorous one later, I suppose. I might go and see what Bob is up to…

But I don’t feel I’ve anything original to offer at the moment, and I’m generally a subscriber to the school of thought that states if you have nothing to say, then it’s best not to say it.

So I thought today I’d pick a random photograph I haven’t posted before and put that up, and just go with a stream of consciousness, and see where it led me.

It turns out it led me here.

The Great Sandwich Schism – Again

Well, I don’t know about you, but what with you-know-what and the lockdown I feel a bit bleurgh at the moment, so to try to inject a little cheer – or whimsy, anyway – I thought I’d re-post an old one:

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, God created the world. And he looked upon the world and said ‘Well, so far so good’.

And the world was full of beautiful things and good things and a great bounty of useful things that humans would later ransack and destroy in the name of greed, although that is a story for another day.

But when the people whom God had created looked upon his great works, they said unto Him ‘How might we thank you, oh God? How might we show our gratitude for your benevolence?’

And God replied ‘Oh, I don’t know. I really wish you wouldn’t bother. But if you must, just make me a sandwich, or something. I’m feeling a bit peckish after all that creating.’

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And so the people made haste to slice bread and find Good Things to become a tasty and delicious filling for the sandwich they had made for their God. And there arose minor disputes such as whether ham and cheese really went together in a sandwich, or whether mayonnaise actually counted as food, but the people settled their quarrel in an amicable fashion and so the sandwich was created and placed upon a golden plate that was decorated with the names of angels and archangels, and set about with small mountains of salad and just a little dash of mustard in case God should fancy some.

And then one among them rose up and said ‘Wait, for we must cut this sandwich before we present it to our God, unless it be a bit too large for him to handle and he drop pieces of cheese from the sides or drip mayonnaise in his holy lap.’

And all at once there arose discord, for some were found who would cut the sandwich in a diagonal fashion, and yet others who declared that would be an affront to His holiness and that the only Right Way would be to cut the sandwich into equal rectangles.

And lo, the factions took up weapons and fought, yea, even in the Holy Kitchen, and they did massacre one another and each declared that the other faction was a worshipper of Satan, who was completely bemused by all this, since he had no followers (not even on Facebook), and they did create rival churches and rival nations and declared undying enmity against each other, spending the next few thousand years thinking up new and more imaginative ways to hate and kill and destroy each other.

And God groaned and held his head in his hands and said ‘Oh verily, what a cock-up this has become. I think I shall destroy the lot of them.’

Stir Crazy – A Bit

We are not quite in lockdown, but for someone who likes to spend as much time outside as possible, it feels a little like it.

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We are more fortunate than many, in that we are a short walk away from woodland, and then a limited amount of open countryside. But I yearn to walk the hills, the truly open places like moorland and marshland. I wonder whether to take a bus or train the comparatively short journey to these places. I could be up on the South Downs in two hours, and their pull is almost painful at the moment.

And my reading and writing have been affected by all this, too. I was halfway through My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, which I was enjoying then but suddenly I have lost all interest in it. It is set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century but my heart yearns for the English countryside. So much so, that I can no longer bear to read it. So I have set it aside for now and begun to read The Moor by William Atkins; stories of myth, history and literature connected with the moorland areas of England.

And likewise, my enthusiasm for my current writing projects has dried up, and for similar reasons. I am in the middle of re-writing one novel, and over halfway through writing another, but I cannot currently drum up any enthusiasm for either. One is set in sixteenth century Persia, the other in Northern India in the 1980’s and yes, I just want to be outside, here.

I have been writing notes, though, for another idea I had intended to start only after completing one or both of those novels, but I have now decided to allow myself to begin it. I need a project I can really enthuse over, and this one will be set in the wildness of Southern England at some point in the past (I know what it is, but I’m not telling you yet!). I hope this will both give me some sort of pleasurable focus for my writing and also allow me to wander, in my mind, in those places I yearn to be.

Lost and Found in Translation

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I have read many novels, short stories and poems translated into English from other languages, but I wonder how much of what I read is true to the original intentions of the authors?

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short stories and poems, all of them in his native Spanish. Although I did buy one collection in Spanish, my own knowledge of that language has always been too poor for me to do anything other than read it slowly and laboriously and, undoubtedly, to miss many of the nuances in the writing. So for that reason, I’ve had to read them in translation.

And in any case, even if I spoke Spanish well I could do little more than read it as translation in my head. Unless I spoke it like a native speaker, I would still likely miss much that the author intended to convey.

And so I buy translations.

Zima Junction by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a long poem that tells of the poet’s visit to his home town in Siberia, having left some years before to go to live and work in a city. It is a beautiful depiction of rural life in Russia at the time, seen afresh after a gap of several years away, and describes the poets now ambiguous relationship with it.

Long poems can be good vehicles for describing journeys; my own poem The Night Bus does just that, and was written because in that instance I could not find any other medium that worked as well to convey what I wanted to say.

Another favourite of mine is Dart by Alice Oswald, which describes a journey from the source to the sea along the River Dart in Devon, England. She gives voices to the various people encountered along this journey, and to the animals living there…Since it is written in English, I am not left with any worry I am missing things the poet wanted to say, other than perhaps my own occasional inability to understand her.

I have a book of poems from North East India. It is an anthology that I bought in India, with contributions from a huge number of poets. A few of them wrote in English, but the majority of them wrote in other languages – some in Bengali, but the majority in one or other of the plethora of languages to be found in the North East States. And, sadly, most of the translations appear to have been done as a straightforward translation word for word, with no thought given to the feeling of the poem. Any rhythm the poems may originally have had seems to have been lost. The sentences are often clunky and uncomfortable to read. Their meanings have become lost in translation.

But Zima Junction has a natural and comfortable rhythm

The translator of a poem has, to my mind, a task that is more difficult than the translator of prose. Yet, paradoxically, they also have more freedom. More difficult, because they have to get across to the reader ideas or meanings that may be partly concealed in idiomatic language used by the author that perhaps we have no parallel for in English, and hence they may have to completely alter the structure of that part. This will affect a line of poetry far more than it would a line of prose. Immediately, the rhythm of the poem is disrupted, the word count of the line changed.

Yet the reader of a poem has a right to expect a poem. And so, strangely, the translator has the freedom to re-write the poem. In the need for the end result of their translation to be a poem, they may have to completely alter much of the structure to enable the translated words to reassemble themselves as a poem. And so the translators of poems must, by essence, be poets themselves.

So to return to Borges and Yevtushenko, when I read the poems I do wonder whether I am actually reading their poems, or someone else’s?