Author Archives: vpdot

Writing a Novel – Day 21

Snoopy typingHurray! The writer’s block seems to be dealt with for the moment, with only a little shaming from the spousal unit. I knew it was a good idea to go public with my plan to write a book since now I have many well wishers asking every day how much progress I’ve made. I finished my next mini chapter and put a research question out to a friend about a problem to be solved in the next chapter. I think I’ll add him as a helpful character in my book.

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but the book is a light mystery story whose plot I’m making up as I go along, so the chapters are as much a revelation to me as they are to my characters.

Does this breakthrough mean I am going to be efficient and finish up the book lickety-split? Naaah.

Reading a Novel – Writer's Block Edition

Writers blockNope, the novel is not going anywhere. In a desperate attempt to jumpstart my recalcitrant brain, I went to the library a couple of days ago and picked up a bag full of books. My method, if I am not picking a known author, is to open the book mid-way and see if I can tolerate the language…a necessary ritual, given my declining attention span.

Well, this time my fishing was spectacular. Here are the gems I found.

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie: If there’s any justice in the world, this man will win a Nobel Prize one day. These short stories, chronicling the un-moored life of Native Americans, are so spare and beautiful that each is a master class in writing. The matter of fact wretchedness of the lives in these stories make for a somewhat grim experience, but I find it difficult to stop reading. Alexie’s keen observations of reservation life and the impact it has on its inhabitants makes you realize that slavery still exists in the US, insidiously cloaked in the trappings of welfare and reparation.

Alexie had a pretty eventful and traumatic childhood, which probably gave him a heightened sensitivity to suffering, but he doesn’t wallow in it. Each page has a paragraph or two that makes you go “Wow” in admiration. If you love to read, and are not daunted by bleak writing, you must, must read this author.

The Doctor of Thessaly by Anna Zouroudi: Now that the Ladies Detective Agency books are beginning to pall a little, I’m really fortunate to have found this series, featuring fat detective Hermes Diaktoros. Lovely comfort food for mystery lovers, in the vein of Miss Marple adventures. There are only three books in the series so far, but I am going to find the others and then wait patiently for the new ones. Zouroudi is also a minimalistic writer and is able to sketch her Greek characters with a sharp pen.

The Girl in Blue by P.G. Wodehouse: I thought I’d read all of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, but I could not recall this one. But the real reason I picked it up was its ancient plastic cover and the faded, silverfish-eaten, brittle pages inside – I had a flashback to the musty libraries of my childhood, mostly stocked by the British before they left India, full of holey books and the smell of mold. Heaven! The Girl in Blue is pretty formulaic Wodehouse, but still a lot of fun and, unlike my reading style as a kid when plot was all that mattered, I read this time to savor the punny style.

Two other random choices were Fleur DeLeigh’s Life of Crime by Diane Leslie and The Spare Wife by Alex Witchel. Each is a satirical peek into the life of the rich and glamorous, one in New York and the other in Beverly Hills, and I’ll review when I finish reading them.


Writing a Novel – Day 20

Snoopy typingYou know you have a problem when your Aspie teen with anxiety issues and a video game addiction is further ahead on his novel that you are on yours. I swear I am never yelling at him again for his lack of motivation.

Got back to my novel after days of wasting my time and discovered I needed help with the continuity, even in as small a book as mine. What was the name of that lady in chapter 2? What did the heroine say to her friend in chapter 5? So I had to go back and re-read what I had written so far, a project strewn with the landmines of self-criticism. Luckily I could still tolerate the story I had written so far, so I went ahead and worked on chapter 10.

If I had to do some introspection, I guess I would say that the reason I am not in a hurry to finish the book is because once it is done I will have to show it to people and that prospect freaks me out.

Hatsune Miku – The Perfection of Virtuality

Hatsune MikuI was introduced to this band (?) by my teenager, who is into J-Pop and K-Pop (that’s Japanese and Korean pop for all you ignoramuses out there). After I complained that the voice sounded just like those on some of the other bands he enjoys, he enlightened me that there was no actual person behind the song (or the others). Hatsune Miku is an artificial singing voice created by a company called Crypton Fusion Media, using a voice synthesizer technology called Vocaloid created by Yamaha. Anyone can buy the “voice” and use it to sing their music.

To help sell the artificial voice, the creators gave Hatsune Miku a persona, and later even introduced versions of Miku like “Sweet,” “Soft,” and “Light.”

“How do they play concerts then?” I asked. He pointed me to this video.

Hatsune Miku, as you can see from this video of one of the most popular songs in this genre, is a vision of Japanese fantasy beauty, with very manga-like teal pigtails, projected as a hologram or a projection on screen.

Many other composers use this Vocaloid and others to showcase their compositions, and these songs have a very legitimate place in the world of music. But they beg the question – what about the connection between the audience and the singer?

I guess that’s a pretty naive question these days. Increasingly, our communication with others is over the internet or the phone. Sometimes a photo next to someone’s FB status helps me form that connection, especially for people who I am very fond of and have never met. So it is obvious that we can achieve a fair degree of interpersonal connection without having had any face-to-face contact. The story of Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker who carried on a deeply emotional relationship with a woman who only existed online (and was discovered later to have been created by a disturbed young man name Ronaiah Tuiasosopo) perhaps illustrates this best.

Do we enjoy these artificial, infinite-distance relationships so much because they are perfect in a way real relationships can never be? Lennay Kekua, Te’o’s virtual girlfriend, never complained about not spending enough time with him, or that he forgot Valnetine’s Day, or that he was flirting with another girl. Even on her deathbed, she spoke words of encouragement and hope where a real girl hurting from chemo and radiation would have been bitchy and mean.

Hatsune Miku will never have an off day, never cancel a show because of laryngitis, and will never embarrass her fans by exiting a car without underwear. She will never go old and saggy. Her voice will always be sweet perfection. And in her perfectly endowed persona, she will go on entertaining even as her aging fans are replaced by their next generation. She is an idealized version of a real voice is a way we are idealized versions of ourselves online, having perfect weekends and vacations with smiling teens and loving spouses.

That promise of perfection is seductive, but give me the real thing any day. Perhaps I write this from the perspective of a cellulite-ridden, graying, over the hill middle-aged woman, but when Asha Bhosle’s voice cracked on a particularly high note singing “Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja” during a concert at Cow Palace in San Francisco, and she sweetly apologized to her adoring fans, she established a connection far more powerful than singing those notes perfectly would have.

And yesterday I shelled out a small fortune to watch Steffi Graf play an exhibition match at the SAP Open in San Jose. The musculature was gone, the wicked cross-court drives blunted, and most of the serves hit the net. But it was such a thrill to be breathing the same air as this amazing lady who gave me so much joy for so many years with her talent and style.

There is a place for the Hatsune Mikus of the world – her success and the success of similar Vocaloid creations is testimony to that. And there will be CGI Gollums and hologram Tupacs and more and more virtual heroes and idols. But it would be wise to remember that Miku’s artificial voice has been built from samples of voice actress Saki Fujita. Gollum was voiced and performed by the very talented actor Andy Serkis. And Tupac’s hologram needed a real Tupac to exist to have the impact it did. It is painless to interact with perfection, but it is also ephemeral. Our imperfections need the friction of other imperfections to cling to – warts, farts, and all.



Transitions Seminar – For Parents of Kids on the Spectrum

“My son thinks lunch just shows up at the dinner table,” says Richa Gupta (name changed for privacy reasons). “He has no idea of the process it takes to get there, that there are such things as grocery stores and menu planning.” Richa’s son Raj, who is a junior at the Orion Academy in Lafayette, CA, also frequently loses his Bart ticket, his jacket, his water bottle..the list goes on.

While this may sound like most teenagers at some point or the other, Raj is on the autistic spectrum, diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, and what are minor organizational issues for neurotypical kids are magnified several times for him. Richa wonders how he will cope in a year and a half from now, when kids his age typically graduate high school and begin a life of independence at college.

The Orion Academy, where Raj studies, is specifically geared to children with Aspergers, and is very focused on helping them transition to life in the mainstream. As part of that process, the Academy hosts an annual Transitions Seminar where eminent speakers are invited to speak on the theme of the seminar, which varies from year to year. Vendors providing services geared to the theme are also invited, and the day-long seminar becomes a gathering place for the community of caregivers for children on the spectrum.

This year’s theme is “Spectrum Teens as Adults: IQ vs. EQ” where specialists will present on the finding that kids on the spectrum, while often gifted with special talents, have a considerable challenge in managing the details of everyday life and making and sustaining social relationships. As a parent of a child on the spectrum, I can vouch for the lag in emotional maturity that these kids have, where a social understanding that is evident to my neurotypical 10-year-old is missing from the 17-year-old Aspie.

“Parents get burnt out dealing with the social deficits of their spectrum kids,” adds Richa, who is one of the organizers of the seminar. “It helps to meet other people in the same situation and learn from the experts. You may not get all the answers you want in just that one day, but it will be a good start for planning for the future.”

Check out the Orion Academy’s Transition Seminar if you are a caregiver or a service provider to teens on the spectrum. Details are in the flyer below.

transitions seminar


Special Chabbis – The Hype Doesn't Help

special chabbisThe story is quite interesting, though it is not particularly original.

The script is excellent, with small touches that elevate.

The direction is just above mediocre, and does the script a great disservice.

The confounding thing about Special Chabbis (Special 26) is that the story, script, and direction are all in the hands of the same person–Neeraj Pandey–who distinguished himself with A Wednesday, one of the finest thrillers to come out of Bollywood.

Pandey won the Indira Gandhi award for Best First Film of a Director for that gem, and there are moments in Chabbis that justify that praise. But overall, this heist thriller in the mold of Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job does not live up to its pre- and post-release hype.

I wonder if the clue to that disappointment lies in the numerous entities that seemed to be involved with the film – the production acknowledgments run longer than the credits. Was the director pressured to add songs, dances, and a pulsating background score that often detracts from the on-screen action by its inappropriateness? It seems unnecessary, since the crisply edited, songless A Wednesday was such a commercial and critical success.

No matter what the reason, Chabbis is bloated with the trappings of Bollywood – the sangeet, the dream sequence, the judaai song – which add at least 30-40 minutes of unnecessary running time. Yes, it is important to have character development, but that can be done without pandering to the front-seaters – witness how beautifully (and economically) Rani Mukherjee’s character was sculpted in Talaash. And what’s unforgivable is that those extra minutes could have been used to close the gaping holes in the plot, some of which are wide enough to drive a barred police van through.

What saves Chabbis is its terrific script  and its capable cast. This is probably Anupam Kher’s best role in a long, long time – the movie is worth watching just for his role as an ordinary man living an extraordinary secret life. Manoj Bajpayee as a dashing CBI officer is great as ever, and even Akshay Kumar steps up his performance in the company of these masters. There are many delicious morsels of dialogue that will stay with you long after the movie is done and will give the movie longevity both at the box office and on DVD.

Despite its letdowns, Chabbis is worth watching… just go in with realistic expectations, not with the shadow of A Wednesday hovering over the experience. And take the kids, if you want…this is a pretty clean and fun film.

Writing a Novel- Day 19

Snoopy typingWork on the book has been slow lately. I’m up to chapter 8, still in a good place to continue, just busy with a quiz show I’ve been hosting and some other household obligations. Tomorrow I plan to put in some serious time and get to the heart of the story.

Tried to get my daughter to read what I’ve written so far and give me a critique and she flatly refused. I wonder why? I guess she’s afraid of criticizing and hurting my feelings or having to lie about it! Admittedly those are not good choices but her perceived options don’t help my self-confidence!

I’m also toying with the ambitious idea of starting a story website where I will post a chapter a week of a new story that kids can subscribe to to access the content. Need a web designer who can come up with a snazzy looking website which can do the job. Anybody out there who can do a clean job at a reasonable price?


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger

bloggerWent through a site redesign..not as fancy as it seems. It just involved picking a theme from WordPress’ featured ones and clicking “Install.” The result is a simple minimalist blog based on the theme “Twenty Twelve.”

The reason for the redesign was that WNI has more and more become just my personal blog rather than the community hangout I had once envisioned. Dear friends like Isheeta Sanghi (who I know only through her posts but I feel I know well!) pop in once in a while to post, but mostly is I, me, and myself who posts. It feels more efficient to collect all my writing in one place. In fact, I even plan to create a section for all my India Current editorials here and link back to the magazine. It’s just better curating.

Anyway, the heads up on the redesign was just part of the reason for this blog post. While updating it I was sorry to remove the names and bios of the many people who contributed to the site when it was younger. They got busier and softly walked away. And when I checked the blogs I had linked to, most were defunct.

These writers and bloggers began their journey on the internet with such enthusiasm and hope. The medium of the blog was their deliverance from their humdrum daily routines, a place to be their best creative self, a launchpad for a richer inner life.

But keeping a blog going, as I can vouch for, takes quite a bit of work, and not a little narcissism. And those dreams of making money through eyeballs never really materialized for anyone not outrageous or shameless (that means you, HuffPo).

Right at the point where bloggers were wondering whether the sweat they were pouring into these confessions was worth it, along came Facebook and Twitter and offered sweet validation in 30 words, 140 characters. One picture could generate the kind of commenting 4 paragraphs in a blog could not. One-liner announcements or provocations could start the kind of vigorous discussions that well-reasoned essays never did.

When long form journalism is hunkering down for survival in a handful of national newspapers and magazines, when even seasoned economists and philosophers have taken to encapsulating their ideas in bite size chunks, can a lowly blogger survive in his or her lonely corner of the internet?

I feel the wheel has come full circle. When blogs first began, they were web logs, or online diaries that people maintained to preserve a record of their personal growth. And in the future, the only true blogs, and I mean those that are not selling something or someone, that will continue that mostly solitary journey are of those of the very same nature, perhaps even by the same people, who will use the medium to put themselves and their lives out there, and readership be damned. The only readers they are writing for are their own future selves and that is one audience that will never desert them.

Image courtesy


Writing a Novel – Day 18

Back after a long hiatus. An assignment from India Currents magazine kept me busy nearly all of January. To be honest, it’s not that I didn’t have time to work on my novel; after all, there’s only so much writing you can do on any one topic. But I just didn’t have the “mental space,” as I am fond of telling everyone these days.

I used to think of myself as a very capable multi-tasker. Anyone who is a mom can understand. But when it comes to creative endeavors, I find that I only have room for one, maybe two, tasks in my brain. Preparation for the radio quiz show that I’m hosting beginning February 2 has kept me occupied. That and the IC article was all I could handle. In the hours that were not occupied with quiz, article, and housework, (and there were quite a few of those) I would play Lexulous, watch TV, and read. Even though a part of me was appalled at the waste of productive time, I couldn’t bring myself to work on the novel. I understand a little bit of what my autistic teen is going through in terms of being demotivated. I salute authors who churn out a book a year.

Well, all my excuses have dried up for now, so I’m back to work on my kid’s book. When I left it last, I had broken up my little book into chapters of 500 words each (that should give you a sense of how young I am writing for) and had reached Chapter 6 and a good place to continue. So back to work.

Writing a Novel – Day 17

The chapter book for middle graders is chugging along. I am not too unhappy with what I’ve written so far. Is it a masterpiece? No. But it is good enough for me to keep at it. I’m at chapter 4 (remember, these chapters are really small) and have enough ideas for the next chapter as well.It’s reading a little younger than 12, but that’s okay.

The best part of writing a book for younger kids is that it is eminently illustratable, though it is not a picture book. I can’t draw, but since I don’t know any artists, I am going to try my hand at sketching some rudimentary stuff and also asking my 10-year old to try her hand at it. She likes cartooning, and the pictures I am thinking about so far are simple enough for her to attempt them. I am excited about this development..should be interesting to see how the art turns out.